Why playwriting is like sculpting

Andrew Bovell

By being open to what’s possible, writing becomes a process of discovery, says playwright Andrew Bovell.
Why playwriting is like sculpting

A scene from Black Swan State Theatre Company's 2011 production of Bovell's When the Rain Stops Falling; image via www.bsstc.com.au.

Andrew Bovell is one of Australia’s most respected playwrights. In this extract from the latest Platform Paper, IN THEIR MOUTHS: The playwright and screenwriter at work (published by Currency House) Bovell reflects on his early days as a playwright and the importance of improvisation in his writing process.



I had never written a play until I wrote one for my [VCA] application. It was a comedy of manners, based on my own family, an evisceration of my parents’ marriage. Unforgivable, really, but I was clearly a natural playwright because nothing was sacred. To my astonishment, I was accepted into the course. I think the play demonstrated a degree of emotional honesty, a good ear for dialogue and an understanding of the rhythms of spoken language. It was something to build on. And I think these three qualities have remained key strengths in my work.

When I read the work of a new writer I look for an understanding of the rhythms of spoken language. For me, how something is said is as important as what is said. A character that struggles to say something is more interesting to me than a character that speaks with ease and confidence. My characters often speak as if they are unsure of what they are trying to say. It is as if they are discovering what needs to be said while they are saying it. It’s the dance of language. Good playwrights understand this and each has their own dance and song that they sing. Harold Pinter has it. Caryl Churchill has it. Arthur Miller and Sarah Kane have it. David Mamet has it. Tennessee Williams has it. Patricia Cornelius has it. Each is particular to them. It is their voice.

Melbourne was a revelation. I was struck by the presence of its history in its streetscapes and the diversity of people in its inner suburbs. It seemed sophisticated and decadent, and intellectual compared to Perth. I found a room, or rather a cupboard, in a terrace house in McArthur Place in Carlton. Jane Turner, the comedienne and actor, lived in the front room and through her I began to discover the thriving Melbourne comedy scene at Le Joke and the Last Laugh. La Mama was just around the corner. I didn’t then know the history I had just missed. The Australian Performing Group and the Pram Factory had only just come to their end.

I arrived at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) with a fairly traditional understanding of what a play­wright did. I imagined that he or she worked in much the same way as a novelist or a poet might. I was about to have that notion turned on its head.

Peter Oyston was no longer the director of the School of Drama. However, his legacy remained. His vision described a training of ‘theatre makers’, rather than the more traditional understanding of actors, directors and writers. In some ways the course was a reaction to the more established school in Sydney. At the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), students were trained to supply the existing hierarchical company structures. At VCA the students were trained to go out into the community and to change those structures or make new ones. It was a democratic, egalitarian and collaboratively based approach to making theatre. It was also radical and innately political. To this end, the authorial vision of the playwright was subsumed by the collective vision of the group and the community for which the work was being made. A series of instrumental companies emerged from the school, in the late 1970s and early 1980s such as West, Theatre Works and the Murray River Performing Group.

By 1984 the culture of the school was in transition, under the directorship of Roger Hodgman, who would go on to become artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC). Roger was an early champion of my work. He introduced me to my first agent, Hilary Linstead, and later offered me a position as writer-in-residence at the MTC and in the early 1990s commissioned me to adapt Gulliver’s Travels for a co-production with Handspan Puppet Theatre. Later, he commissioned Hannie Rayson and me to co-write Scenes From A Separation, which was directed by Robyn Nevin at the MTC in 1995 and again in a new production at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2004.

To a degree, having established a playwrights’ course, the school was unsure what to do with us (there were only three of us). Fortunately, we were required to do the general theatre course for the first year. And so I shared classes with actors, directors, technicians and designers and, importantly, animateurs—the midwives of the new theatre. The boundaries between these disciplines were, in theory, being challenged and broken down. I was by no means an actor but working alongside them gave me an insight into their process and a sense of being a part of an ensemble of ‘theatre practitioners’. The fact that I learned from the beginning how to work with actors and other theatre makers, was a crucial factor in determining the kind of playwright I became.

At VCA I came into contact with some inspirational teachers. Hilary Glow, in her Critical Studies course, taught me about cultural context. The movement teacher, Anne Thompson, revealed how the language of choreography was as important to the writer as it was for the actor and dancer. Nancy Black directed my first full-length work at the college, An Ordinary Dream about a Journey North. In this play lay the seeds of the multi-time structure and superimposition used twenty years later in When the Rain Stops Falling. The ideas and techniques I was experimenting with at college became the ideas that continued to preoccupy me as a professional playwright.

The performance artist Lyndal Jones was an extraordi­nary teacher. She brought a cross-disciplinary approach to the idea of making work that encouraged us to look to the visual arts, to dance, to music, to philosophy and to intellectual discourse itself as source material. She introduced us to artists such as Laurie Anderson, whose performance and image-based narratives became signifi­cant in my imagination. But it was Richard Murphet’s improvisation class that taught me the most about writing. To my surprise, I was good at it. It was all about being in the moment and being open to what comes next. Where many of the acting students gravitated toward the comic, I would push into darker and more emotional terrain. I would raise the stakes in a scene by pulling out a metaphorical gun. And I knew how to build on what was given to me, on the floor. These are the same instincts that serve good writing.

When I write a line of dialogue I don’t know always know what the next line will be. Some lines, of course, I know ahead and I need to build to them. But most of the time I don’t know what’s going to happen next. It is all an improvisation in my head within a broad structure determined by time and place. Later, I learned that this was how Harold Pinter wrote. He began a play with the first line, which then suggested the second and so on until he reached the end of the play. It wasn’t until then that he really knew who and what the play was about. I do a little more planning than that but when writing takes you somewhere you somewhere you weren’t expecting to go, it’s usually a sign that something is working.

I use the analogy of sculpting. You begin with a lump of wood. Your intention is to carve a house; but as you work, you discover that the grain has certain qualities, that it flows this way rather than that way. And there are other surprises, like a knot in the wood you didn’t expect. You can ignore the direction of the grain and you can ignore the knot and keep on carving the house. Or you can follow the grain and use the knot and discover that you’re carving a boat instead. By being open to what’s possible, writing becomes a process of discovery.

ELIZABETH: How’s the soup?
ELIZABETH: It’s just that I wasn’t sure what to give you.

These are the first lines of dialogue I wrote for When the Rain Stops Falling. They were written for a scene in an early workshop and remained in the final play. The scene takes place between a mother and her adult son. The fact that she is not sure what to give him for lunch reveals something about their relationship. Some kind of emotional distance exists between them. But I didn’t know its cause.

What is eventually revealed, an act of betrayal in the past, is so central to the play that it is hard to believe that it was not the starting point. But it wasn’t. The idea of emotional distance emerged in this snatch of dialogue. I then asked myself why. What caused it? Writing is the process by which you ask yourself a series of questions. In answering one question, another is posed. And so on. I look at those four lines now, almost written blind, and I can see the whole play in them.

Platform Papers 52, PUTTING WORDS IN THEIR MOUTHS: The playwright and screenwriter at work by Andrew Bovell, is now available from Currency House. Visit currencyhouse.org.au for details.

About the author

Andrew Bovell is one of Australia’s most widely admired writers for stage and the screen. His early training as a playwright drew on his upbringing in rural and suburban Western Australia, and the harsh, unbending nature of some of his memorable characters, like those in Holy Day (2001), reflects that environment. 

In Melbourne in the 1980s, he found his workplace among collaborative groups like the Melbourne Workers’ Theatre, (Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? 1998), before his screen adaptation of his play, Speaking in Tongues, catapulted him into the international market with the award-winning film Lantana (2001) directed by Ray Lawrence.  

Other works include When the Rain Stops Falling (2009), which had seasons at the Almeida Theatre in London’s West End in 2009 and at the Lincoln Center, New York in 2010, where it won five Lucille Lortell Awards and was named best new play of the year by Time Magazine; and the multi-awarded The Secret River (2015), adapted from Kate Grenville’s novel. 

Of his recent work, the domestic drama, Things I know to be True (2016), produced jointly by the State Theatre Company of SA and UK-based Frantic Assembly, has toured the UK and will return for a further tour this year. His most recent film is the French language, In the Shadow of Iris (2017), directed by Jalil Lespert. He is currently writing an American feature film based on the novel Stoner by John Williams. 

From December Bovell will be the writer for a theatre research project in Madrid with director Julian Fuentes and the actor and translator Jorge Muriel. 

He lives outside Adelaide and is on the board of Playwriting Australia.