Notes from the National Play Festival 2018 - by Emilie Collyer / by Dan Giovannoni

Emilie Collyer attended the National Play Festival in Sydney - here are her reflections.

The wheels on my wheelie suitcase are broken so they rumble like thunder on the Sydney sidewalk. My friend and I lurch up the road from Central Station seeking a cab to drop us at the Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst. We’re here for the National Play Festival, in particular the Industry Program. Three days of play readings, panel discussions, artists’ talks and workshops.

It’s been a long time since I attended one of these festivals. I bore several people with the story of my traumatic time in the early 2000s when I had a play being workshopped at what was then called the Australian National Playwrights Conference. I decided to re-draft the piece during the two week workshop, meaning what I presented at the showcase was a half-formed thing.

I felt the slap of humiliation as other playwrights and their works were whisked away by theatre companies into programming and mine languished, never to be produced. A few playwrights and actors were excited by the rawness of what I presented – commenting that it captured what they felt the event should be celebrating. Process and experimentation rather than finished product.

I felt in my gut that rewriting the play was the right thing to do for the work. But it was probably an unwise move in a market showcase sense. I came away wondering if the festival existed to serve writers and new ideas or the theatre industry, or was trying to do both and whether this was possible. Later I would reflect that perhaps the hothouse intensity and public exposure were not conducive to the way I wrote and developed work. But at the time I felt like a failure for not capitalising on the experience.

I was looking forward to attending this time in the relaxed state of participant. My goal was to check in with the national conversation, immerse myself in the worlds of other writers and see where the theatre zeitgeist was at.

The festival is a strange beast and it was ever thus. I know a handful of playwrights and industry folk who, like me, have travelled from Melbourne for the Industry Program, either to participate or present. I haven’t enrolled in any of the masterclasses. I want to soak up words and ideas, not be in productive mode at all.

I know these workshops are well attended so I’m guessing there are plenty of playwrights present. It strikes me that it doesn’t feel like there are heaps of playwrights at other program events. As the days go by it feels like a festival for programmers, presenters and companies. The Industry Program focusses on sector issues (including sexual harassment and diverse programming) and new work development. The emphasis in the latter sessions is very much on methods and approaches for companies in how to nurture new writing, or models for creating work. There is not a lot of public moments from writers speaking about writing. 

The most impactful panel for me is the First Nations theatre-makers’ discussion around the challenges they face making work for companies and in venues run by white people. Examples of projects being supported well and not so well are given. It’s a constructive conversation that includes craft and story as well as sector issues.

The play reading program has a range of playwrights and seems like a reasonable cross-section (as much as possible with seven works) of themes and concerns currently driving the theatrical conversation. I am reminded how much of a ‘play’ festival it is by the minimal experimentation in form across the readings. With the exception of one piece, that has been developed via a unique improvisational process, the rest sit comfortably within a narrative and character driven paradigm.

All of the works shown have something to offer, with themes and stories ranging from the deeply personal to the socio-political and a great depth of playwriting skill on display. The imaginative scope of our sector is alive and well. I can feel the same buzz in the room as when I presented all those years ago, as to which plays excite audiences the most. The writer in me still finds it slightly disappointing that the playsthat generate most buzz are those that are closest to being ‘production ready’. Something about the formal play reading environment, us all quiet in our seats, the actors with their scripts and the hush of expectation seems to work against roughness, exploration and failure. These things are very exposed in a space like this so I think they are, as much as possible, kept out.

There are a few artist conversations that edge towards some deeper engagement with craft. What drives us to write. How we use language. A few panels don’t quite meet the promise of their set-up in how they are delivered, but this is the nature of live events.

The keynote speech, given by Wesley Enoch, ruffles a few industry feathers among playwrights not at the festival, with responses from Declan Greene and Nakkiah Lui being quickly written and shared online. This feels energised, genuine and exciting. Dialogue and debate that is respectful but also robust. I wish there was more content of this nature in the festival programming itself.

After three full days my mind and body are spent. Taking in so many words. Being surrounded each day by theatre people, many of whom are ‘on’ and networking. I have a number of conversations with colleagues over the few days about who the festival is for and what its purpose is. A market place? A forum to thrash out industry problems? A way to formalise and make public various partnerships? (Most play readings seemed to have been supported by theatre companies or other development initiatives). Another question that arises is how useful the festival is in terms of the remit of Playwriting Australia. A costly endeavour, would the funds be better spent supporting the work of more playwrights without the big public outcome?

I also keep in mind, during these conversations, that we are writers. It’s in our DNA to analyse, criticise, to look at something for what it’s not as well as for what it is.

No event can serve all purposes. Anything ‘national’ is immediately fraught because it has such a huge scope. I’m not sure who the exact person or persona is that benefits most from the National Play Festivalbut it does play a key role in our national theatrical psyche.

I come away feeling connected to an industry that is active, vibrant, questioning of itself and these are all good things.

I don’t come away feeling particularly fed or nurtured as a writer but perhaps this is not a forum for that aspect of craft development. I wonder how the playwrights who had works presented are feeling.

I come away thinking there is room for a wider range of industry events that give voice and platform to both broader and wider, and deeper and more specific ways of engaging with, talking about and thinking about writing for performance and the place of that within our cultural landscape.

Me and my rumbling suitcase find our way to Kings Cross Station and back to the airport on Saturday afternoon, still not entirely sure how I fit into the National Play Festival, but pleased to have gone and been part of such an energetic, heartfelt and earnest event trying, like all of us, to make something cohesive out of disparate parts.

Emilie x