Playwright Diary Entry #2

I was lucky enough to score a residency at Varuna Writers House in January – ducking and weaving my way through state COVID border restrictions that were still in place at the time – where I completed the draft I took into creative development with Playlab in February. It’s always invaluable having the director and actors in the room for a process like this (and dramaturg Saffron Benner on the end of the phone). As it turned out, there wasn’t significant rewriting to be done during this week. It was more a process of bedding down the changes made at Varuna in the wake of our December development, and refining, refining, refining. Some of that was quite granular-level editing: should the gag about KFC be Natalia’s line or Valentina’s? Do we need a line that explains to the audience when the characters are speaking English and when they’re speaking Serbian? Such a joy to be able to attack this stuff prior to the rehearsals-proper once we’re all back in April.

In the end, (director) Matt ended up powering through the blocking, getting a loose map of how the actors will move through the entirety of the play. Bill Haycock provided us with a sense of what the set will look like – though we’re still excited to see the final designs – and we could choreograph things around how we imagined this to be. Actor Andrew Buchanan stood in for Anthony Standish, who was running The Wider Earth in at the Princess, but got to come and see a stumble-through on the final day of the development. It means we head into the rehearsals in April confident that the text is now more or less solid, actors can start learning lines in advances for those whose process follows that protocol, and we get to concentrate on making the text work rather than trying to ‘fix’ it in Week 1 of rehearsals. Looking forward to it!

Playwright Diary Entry #1

Feeling excellent to have the 2022 Playlab season launched, and there’s been such an immediate buzzy response – including from a whole stack of people interstate who intend to fly in and check the show out, which I’m very touched and overwhelmed by. Getting the sense from friends in the lockdown states, especially, that next year is one where people want to emerge from their home cocoons and get out and about and see things again. Hoping this bodes well for a turnaround in theatre company fortunes everywhere. Amazing to be sharing this season with three other brilliant playwrights, including mates Merlynn Tong and Anna Yen, each of whose work I’m a big fan. 

The play heads into creative development in the first week of December, and as daunting as it is having to rethink and reapproach the text having only just gotten it all out in first draft form, this is for me the part of the process where the piece is traditionally solved. Very kind and enthusiastic support for the early draft from director Matt Scholten, who is assembling a brilliant team of actors and designers. Saffron and I meeting soon to map the piece and work out what pieces of the jigsaw need to move around in creative development. It’s such an excellent part of Playlab’s process that I’ll have the full cast in the room for the creative development week. Looking to mould, mould, mould the story there and raise stakes; lift it from a character study that explores themes, to a tightly plotted play that tells a story well. Matt has also been working early with the wonderful Bill Haycock on the design, and I’m very much hoping he’ll be there in the creative development room too. Not looking to represent the many architectural features (museums, galleries, hotels) and locations mentioned in the play literally in the design, but needing to think about how we create a space that allows us to evoke or conjure the Guggenheim for example, or to project an image from a particular exhibition. 

Also looking forward to exploring ways in which design and performativity might influence story arc and vice versa. Matt, for instance, is talking about wanting to have all actors on stage throughout the performance, which is a great offer for a writer: it forces me to actively consider ways in which scenes might bleed into one another and cross-hatch, which will in turn affect the way that Saffron and I match the scenes from the two time periods up so that they are mirroring each other thematically and rhythmically much more strongly. It all becomes as much about choreography as it does dramaturgy at this point of the development process.

Playlab Theatre’s 2021-22 Playwright-in-Residence

Stephen Carleton talks about Brutal Utopias. A big play with an ambitious reach across two different time spans and two different cultural contexts – Yugoslavia in 1970 and New York City today.

‘Finding the human story at the heart of all that is the next challenge.’

What does being Playlab Theatre’s next Playwright-in-Residence mean to the works development?

It means everything! It means it will actually receive creative development before it’s produced – one round in December, and another later in the new year to springboard us into rehearsals. New work is the hardest work to do: the riskiest, both artistically and in practical terms, just in the sense that you’re diving so wholly into the unknown. You’re generating ideas from scratch and putting them into the public domain for the first time. Possibly for the only time. It’s a high stakes game, but ultimately the most rewarding, I think.

Tell us a little bit about Brutal Utopias, what inspired you to write this play?

Ok, so here’s the long story.

I caught up a couple of years ago with an Australian friend in New York. She’s an environmental architect with a major firm there, and our conversation turned to plans I’d heard to build a sea wall around the financial district of Manhattan. “Fact or fiction?”, I asked her. “Oh, that’s absolutely going ahead,” she said. “It’s called ‘The Big U’. They’ve awarded the contract. Google it.” The story is that after Hurricane Sandy flooded large sections of Brooklyn and Manhattan, companies in the Wall St district recognised that this was going to become a recurring event. In order to protect the most valuable piece of real estate on the planet from rising sea levels and storm surge, a sea wall (disguised as a series of ‘berms’ and flooding mitigation projects) hugging the ocean-exposed tip of the island of Manhattan is going to be built – financed by the last people in the world you’d expect to be climate change advocates. It’s happening. The funny thing is, almost no one in New York I spoke to had either heard of this project, or knew that it was going ahead. And these are informed, New York Times-subscribing People in the Know. What’s the deal there, I wondered?

In the same trip,  I attended an exhibition at MoMA about the brutalist concrete architecture coming out of Yugoslavia from the 1950s through to the end of Tito’s reign in 1980 – grand, stark civic projects including hotels, galleries, museums, war memorials, hospitals, housing estates that were an aesthetic serenade to the egalitarianism of the glorious workers’ republic of Yugoslavia. I hadn’t realised that Yugoslavia itself was regarded as an exceptionalist state, and

(internally, at least by some) something of a socialist utopia.

It had broken away politically from the USSR, but not wanted to align with the West, and so saw itself as a renegade ‘third way’ people’s republic: a homely confederation of sympathetic autonomous states (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia,  Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Croatia) working in spirited concert towards architectural and political perfection. What could go wrong, right?

In my brain, these two scenarios speak to each other in rich, resonant metaphors. On the one hand we have a major (but apparently secretive) architectural and engineering project designed to protect New York City from a global environmental dystopia the rest of the country is pretending isn’t going to happen; on the other, an attempt to build the perfect society through utopian architectural design when we know – from the vantage point of the present day – that Yugoslavia is about to break apart and descend into unimaginable carnage.

Finding the human story at the heart of all that is the next challenge.

How is Brutal Utopias different from all the other plays you’ve written?

I’ve never written about overseas cultures before. All of my work to date has either been set in Australia, or very close to it (Bastard Territory was partially set in Port Moresby).

It’s also a fugue form, which I’ve not attempted before: twin melodies/narratives that resonate thematically but run parallel to each other before coming together in the final stanza. It’s also a more naturalistic work than is otherwise my default or go-to writing voice.

What would you say is your major writing quirk/idiosyncrasy?

I have a tendency towards dark humour and heightened language and form. I think I’m a bit of a stylist in that regard: so Gothic or absurdist tones and forms tend to be my go-to. That’s partially because the first play I ever saw (in Darwin, when I was a kid) was an Ionesco piece that I won tickets to on the radio. My formative theatre experience was one that had characters running around the streets of Europe turning into rhinoceroses, speaking in linguistic flights of fancy, talking passionately about politics and philosophy. So part of me just innately thinks that that’s what theatre is supposed to be. Political and absurd. The trick is always to match the idea

you have up with the appropriate form, though, right? To find the form that the play is urgently, petulantly telling you it needs to be. I’m terrified of naturalism. Staring down that terror as we speak…

What kind of preparation do you do before writing a draft?

A lot of reading and researching months – years in this case – leading up to the writing process. And then I put it all aside and hope it’s osmosed into my brain, and surrender to the creative, instinctive generative process. I shift from left brain to right brain mode to get the first draft out. Then in comes the dramaturgical team, and its back to left brain again to look at logic and system… I also scrapbook during preparation phase. I start jotting down characters’ names and snippets of dialogue that home in on the urgent ideas. I start to get a sense of the form and style of the piece, I think, at this stage. Just sit back and channel and let the characters speak in their own voices until they land and materialise. It’s the best part of the process, in some ways – like being a kid at play. It’s all raw instinct and uncensored, unjudged, private fun before anyone else gets to see it.

What is the focus of the play’s development in the coming months?

Getting the story out. It’s the hard slog phase of the process where I just have to push and push my way through good and bad ideas and get it all out on the page and then knock it into meaningful shape thereafter. God bless dramaturgs!

Who does the story speak to and what type of audience do you envision Brutal Utopias to appeal to?

Well, I hope it speaks to a broad audience that cuts across age groups and cultural and social demographics. We were discussing this in our first meeting last week (with dramaturg Saffron Benner, director Matt Scholten, and artistic director/CEO Ian Lawson). Saffron suggested it’s a play about building foundations and leaving lasting legacies – either physical buildings and civic projects, or families, or beyond that, sustainable futures. It’s asking the big “what do we leave behind?” question, I think, that hangs over us as a society – one that is toying perilously with its own future. I’m hoping it appeals to everyone in some way.

Brutal Utopias is a brand new work by Brisbane playwriting icon, Stephen Carleton. Stay up-to-date with the play’s development here.