I’ve been working steadily behind the scenes as a professional comedy writer for the last 28 years for some very well-known celebrities and comedians including Andrew Denton, Paul McDermott and Wil Anderson, to name a few.
Recently, however, I’ve found myself way outside my comfort zone after being given the opportunity to produce and direct my own stage play, Plaything, for the upcoming Sydney Comedy Festival.
It wasn’t meant to be that way!
I wrote Plaything almost accidentally several years ago. It was an idea that only worked as a stage play. I was at the Belvoir Street theatre one night to see a production of either Waiting for Godot or Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead, I can’t remember which, but it had to be one or the other because they’re the only two plays I ever go to see.
Attempting to visit the gents for a pre-performance pee, I momentarily mistook the stage door for the toilet door. Realising my mistake before I’d gone too far, I wondered what would happen if a couple of toilet-seeking theatre patrons accidentally found themselves on stage in an Absurdist comedy.
From this accident, Plaything was born.
Actually, almost stillborn! Once written, I didn’t know what to do with Plaything. It languished for several years until last November when I heard that the Sydney Comedy Festival organisers were calling for show submissions, and I thought this would be the ideal umbrella for my one-act, one-hour mix of deep philosophical musings, existential dilemma and, let’s face it, toilet humour.
Clearly I didn’t think it through. I suppose I imagined the organisers would love the play and provide me with an experienced producer, a brilliant director and a bunch of extremely talented actors.
Instead, they offered me a theatre, an empty theatre. A 140-seat empty theatre for two nights!
With less than eight weeks until opening night, I suddenly found myself producing and directing my own play in the Sydney Comedy Festival!!! As a result, I’ve begun calling myself “The Accidental Auteur”.
You must understand that as a television comedy writer I work from home by myself, often in my pyjamas. I didn’t even own a mobile phone! Now, with newly-purchased mobile in hand, I’m booking rehearsal rooms, wrangling actors and scavenger-hunting hard-to-find props, while trying desperately not to max out my credit card.
Now, as a producer/director, I look at my own script and wish I’d been a producer/director when I was writing it. Instead of difficult-to-procure “French doors”, I’d have the actors enter via a slit in the curtain, and instead of drinking from a cut-glass sherry decanter, they would be drinking from a recycled Orchy bottle.
Up until now I didn’t really know what a producer did. Now I do. They worry. They don’t sleep very much. They become instantly adept at begging, borrowing and stealing for the sake of the production. And they adopt complete shamelessness in their relentless pursuit of friends, relatives and complete strangers to provide those elusive “bums on seats”.
For all this, I have to admit that there’s something both thrilling and fulfilling about being given the opportunity to “realise one’s own vision”, if you know what I mean. So many times in the past I have written something of which I was tremendously proud for a TV show, only to see it mangled on the screen, or worse, cut completely. But as a seasoned TV hack, I’m used to seeing my babies killed or disfigured simply for the sake of brevity so the network can squeeze in another commercial.
This time, however, I will personally be delivering this bouncing little brainchild in one piece, alive and kicking, hopefully in front of a packed house.
My certainty around the success of Plaything lies with the practitioners of that most uncertain of occupations – actors. The actors I have met in my short but intense adventure into the world of the theatre have blown my tiny mind with their positive, open, can-do attitude. I’ve been fortunate to have gathered around me a cast of “therious thespians” – Jodine Muir, Heath Ivey-Law, Peter Adams, Richard Cotter and Tricia Youlden. You probably won’t recognise their names, but you should, and if there’s any justice in the world, one day soon you will.
These are people who are willing to come out after eight hours at their day job to spend their evenings rehearsing and re-rehearsing my play largely out of the love of their craft. People happy to work on bringing my play to life on the promise of a profit-share of a production we all know isn’t going to make a profit.
Watching them breathe life into my words, pump blood into my stage directions and make even the lamest of my jokes hysterically funny has made all the horrors and scariness of being a first time producer-director all worthwhile.
Now, on with the show…