A State of Play essay by Didem Caia
As a playwright, the space I work from is suspended somewhere between intuition and intellect. This space is a ‘sweet spot’, where both poles work in sympathy. Here, the conventional order of the everyday world can be destabilized and a new reality determined. My task is to unravel, transform and create new perceptions. This means diving into my own thoughts, feelings and sensations in order to offer new ways of engaging with reality. I write in order to make deep, authentic connections: experiences which take root just beyond the reach of logical thought. This is why theatre exists in a strange and mystical space: because it has the ability to engage beyond logic and pure action.
I was hiking. A familiar path in the Otway ranges. The mist had set in. I sometimes drift into a kind of mental autopilot when hiking here because I’ve experienced it so often. This particular time, however, I found myself looking up into an unfamiliar area about half an hour in, not knowing exactly where I was. It was a simple mistake, I hadn’t been paying enough attention to where I was going, and consequently I veered off the path. When I glanced up and realized the woods did not look as I was expecting them to I felt a rush of exhilaration. The woods became instantaneously new. It felt like a small sliver of something Mysterious and Other showing itself for a fleeting moment. My sense memory was momentarily destabilised, and the resulting experience was a reminder of how the familiar can suddenly appear as new. I’d walked here many times before, and the scent of hung-over raindrops, the sound of gravel, touch of leaves, tree trunks and the sight of falling sunshine diamonds, had picture booked their way into my mind’s eye. But in this moment that eye was suddenly and unexpectedly awakened to a new way of seeing.
This is where I begin to think about plays and about the multifaceted uses of form and language. About the way each text contains its own combination of the tangible and the intangible, the collision of which has the potential to reconfigure our reality and, in turn, enact change: change which could lead to a renewed culture of writing.
I’ve left out a step. Before I experienced the release of being disoriented, before I surrendered to it, I felt intensely frustrated. I experienced the rigidity of my own consciousness, how instinctively resistant I was to something unexpected. Something was happening in this swirl of frustration; I wasn’t on autopilot anymore. I was out of my comfort zone, and I had to participate in that instant, participate in making meaning of my surroundings in order to understand where I was. My mind had been disrupted. I looked up, I looked around, and I felt as if a force was enabling me to see the woods, not just look at them. I experienced an instantaneous transformation of consciousness; a blip in which the latent enchantment of the everyday world manifested vividly, even if just for a fleeting moment. The woods were the stage, I was the audience, and I experienced the great creative tension of the theatre: severed from my filter of expectation, I temporarily experienced the transformation of my own reality.
This is what great plays can do. They use form and language in order to disrupt cultural paradigms and shape understanding. Form influences the perspective of an audience’s perception, and this perspective shift interrogates, provokes and challenges our collective ideas of how things are, how they ought to be, and how they might be.
I understand ‘form’ as a dramaturgical tool, an over-arching term for the elements that constitute theatre, operating within aesthetic and ideological parameters. These elements function in a theatrical text like a human heart in a body. The human heart has four chambers, and similarly the elements divide themselves into four: Time, Space, Language and Body.
As with the chambers of the heart, these elements are inextricably connected by their subsets. The tiny veins of mood, colour and tone; beats, pauses and silences; connections between scenes, metaphors, political, social and economic ideas; history, future, the now. Everything is wrapped up in this fist-shaped organ, pumping blood, ready to punch an audience in the mind, body and spirit.
|In its best self, theatre offers a continuous series of these visceral moments, vibrating between the hearts and minds of its audience. This is our greatest and most elusive challenge: to present the live moment – in all of its complexity – to a sensing, feeling and thinking audience.|
In its best self, theatre offers a continuous series of these visceral moments, vibrating between the hearts and minds of its audience. This is our greatest and most elusive challenge: to present the live moment – in all of its complexity – to a sensing, feeling and thinking audience.
The playwright’s relationship to the ‘now’ and the alchemy it requires to animate that relationship, creates a powerful energy. It flows from awareness; an absolute consciousness of urgency, time and space.
The linear time-logic of the dramatic (naturalist) tradition separates and codifies story as a series of action and consequence. In the theatre, this can be both deeply satisfying (‘bad’ people getting caught and punished, lovers being united) and politically effective (we get to consider the moral and political structures within which we live and in so doing understand the ties that bind us). In life however, the mind flashes constantly between past, present and future; we live within an indefinable space where all three co-exist. To bring this way of seeing into theatrical text disrupts classical theatrical logic and builds a powerful energy which can be crucial in coming face to face with brand new information, and in turn enacting real change.
This energy raises questions. What is driving me to write this play? What am I exploring, and what are the implications of my putting this out into the world? These are vital and – crucially – conscious questions, which demand response, expansion and evolution.
Our cultural climate often seems to deny the potential of theatre as a way to shift consciousness. And this is devastating because a declining theatre culture means a declining democratic culture. I believe now more than ever that art is the driving force in our collective consciousness. And the more it is commodified and directed at its inner circle, the more it stagnates in the repetitions of ideas, images, voices and forms.
The English playwright Simon Stephens conducted a workshop at the Melbourne Theatre Company late last year. He writes some of the most beautifully arresting interpretations of youth in contemporary England that I’ve ever read. He said to me, “all plays must be about people”. The form, content and dramaturgy obviously will shift and change, but the playwright, who is essentially “a cartographer, mapping the directions of humanity through an aesthetic collection of signs and symbols”, has a responsibility to construct a world in which the audience is necessary to the life and vitality of the play itself, not inconsequential.
I agree with Stephens that plays have to be about people. And that plays are inherently political, and therefore must respect the constellation of differences that we hold and share. Deep, intuitive thinking and feeling is required here. What does the word ‘difference’ really mean? Why are we so frightened of it? How has language changed? Why do words lie and actions don’t? What has happened to our capacity to heal? What has happened to our mental health? Why is depression one of the leading causes of global disability? Why do we hide behind buzzwords and verbal advocacy and then fail to act?
And so, every time I sit at my desk, I ask myself how I might use playwriting as an act of revolution. It is one thing to believe that art is as important to understanding the world as science or economics are. It’s another altogether to make the work with that revolutionary energy. Scientific breakthroughs happen when scientists have the courage to challenge accepted norms. The ever-emerging discoveries of quantum physics demand the next generation to go further, to think deeper. This is our challenge.
This type of daring and rigour is the fuel for our forward motion as a leading new writing community. A community led by “cartographers” who map our hidden terrains and forests without feeling embarrassed or nervous, or scared of getting lost or being ostracised, of being misunderstood, misread, overlooked. A community of artists who refuse to shape their practice according to the unspoken moulds and comfort zones of mainstream programming: a community that retains its faith in originality of voice and difference of perspective.
The history of art is a litany of revolutionary artists unrecognized in their own time: Sarah Kane, misunderstood for the first half of her writing life, is posthumously recognized as one of the UK’s greatest playwrights; Patrick White was so ahead of his time that scholars continue to find renewed meanings within his work. Both to me are geniuses who never abandoned their own visions, and in the realization of those visions, changed the form forever.
As the Kane example shows, visionary art – art that is inclusive, bold, abstract, new in form and interpretation, is often initially rejected (or misunderstood) within the mainstream, and – more vitally – within those platforms (like TV) that are accessed by many more people. This is especially hard in theatre because we are a social art; we depend on the interaction with our audience for the full realization of our work.
Kane defied cultural paradigms. She combined rigorous understanding of craft with extraordinary emotional and intuitive acumen, and in so doing, forged a unique style. In just six major works Kane rewrote the book on contemporary playwriting, and she did this by refusing to be seduced by cultural tropes, and by perverting and subverting the familiar. Kane’s legacy is the renewal of playwriting culture, which took place in her wake.
When I write of ‘culture’, I write in regard to the ideas, customs and social behaviors of a particular people and society. It is clear to me that our playwriting is trying breathlessly to catch up with the vast diversity of cultural expression, both in our local context and our global. After all, culture writes us first, and our stories follow.
|It is clear to me that our playwriting is trying breathlessly to catch up with the vast diversity of cultural expression, both in our local context and our global. After all, culture writes us first, and our stories follow.|
But are our stories following?
The stagnation of consciousness within the culture that writes us first, and most terribly, the stagnation of cultural curiosity, expedition and interpretation in our theatre, is something that challenges us all. We seek further education, we go overseas in order to find that special something that our gut is telling us we need. But isn’t it problematic if we are stepping outside our own culture in order to find answers? Having a wider knowledge of British and American theatre traditions than we do our own? Having aspirations of working anywhere but in our own back yards?
We could be mining the depth, emotion and psycho-spiritual elements that theatre demands within the (relatively) unchartered territories of our here and now. We could lose ourselves in our own surroundings, learn to see them in new ways, find new paths to reinterpret what it is we think we know.
I use my writing to try to understand and interrogate what is shifting and changing around me. To place myself within these shifting perspectives. To unearth the hidden corners: our secrets, our tattoos of self-loathing, our black holes and dark matter. To make some meaning of them. This is important to me.
The theatre is a site where it is possible to render an audience to something through the body, senses and instinct. Through rage. Through the parts of us that want to be held, that want to be whispered to. The parts of us that are scared of being laughed at or bullied or belittled or abandoned or ridiculed. The parts of us that have lost meaning and faith, and in so doing lost ourselves. How do plays push the boundaries of human experience in order to crack open those deep wells of buried trauma, those genealogical scriptures that write the stories of an array of different individuals?
We are just beginning to skim the surface of our silenced history and, at the same time, rushing to catch up with an Australia that encompasses much more than a tragic past. This inherently political space is the viscera from where the words, sounds and images of the future rumble.
|We are just beginning to skim the surface of our silenced history and, at the same time, rushing to catch up with an Australia that encompasses much more than a tragic past. This inherently political space is the viscera from where the words, sounds and images of the future rumble.|
I believe our job – our absolute greatest role – is to respond to and interpret the times, awake, conscious and acutely aware of cultural implication. This takes bravery, empathy, interrogation, curiosity and craft. This takes work. Work of complexity and nuance; evolving through time, refracted through our social and personal encounters with the world, and moulded by faith in the landscape of which we are all a part.
I stand for the deep interrogation of this through our new writing culture.
Didem is a playwright, theatre-maker and speaker, who has had work produced through NIDA, The Griffin Theatre Company, Theatre 503, La mama theatre and 45 downstairs. Her plays have been developed in Melbourne and Sydney through Playwriting Australia, The RE Ross trust, and the Melbourne city council.
In 2014/2015, she travelled to the UK and US to gain extensive knowledge about Dramaturgy and new writing development; specifically in Edinburgh, London, Chicago and New York. this journey culminated in the readings of three of her plays ‘vile, in bloom and lovers and other strangers’ through chicago dramatists, New york playwrights workshop and the Lark play development centre. This journey was proudly funded through the Australian arts council and the Ian Potter cultural trust.
Didem is also a short fiction writer, and spoken word artist, having had work published in Voiceworks, Catalyst, Express media, Yen, meanjin and womankind. Didem was a 2015 emerging cultural leader at FCAC, and has since been engaging in arts advocacy as well as creating.
Didem has a Diploma in Theatre Arts from Victoria University, awarded through RPL, a Bachelor of Creative Writing from RMIT with first class honours, a Postgraduate diploma in playwriting from NIDA and a Masters in dramaturgy from the VCA.