Finding Your Voice in Kerang
I arrived in Kerang at 1030pm on the Swan Hill train. Kerang is a small country town on the Lodden River in northern Victoria When I stepped off the train it was about 2 degrees. Freezing. It’d been cold on the train. Only two carriages running on a Sunday night but the buffet car sold a hot pie and a cuppa and that kept me warm enough. I was greeted by the taxi. A six seater. The taxi driver asked if I minded if we gave some other people a lift. No worries. I hopped in the front and they hopped in the back. I had thought of walking as it’s only a couple of k’s from the station to the Lodden River Motel. I’m glad I didn’t. Not only was it freezing but my bag doesn’t have wheels. Old school. Leather. Beautiful to look at but heavy to cart around. It seemed like a fair hike to the motel. It wasn’t but it seemed like it. It’s funny how when you’re new to a place everything seems further away than it is. As you become more familiar everything gets a lot closer. It’s a bit like when you drive somewhere and it seems to take a lot longer getting there than getting back. The taxi driver was friendly. She told me a bit about Kerang. Coldest night for years, she said. She dropped me off at the motel and wished me luck. The room was like an ice chest. It didn’t matter. I climbed into bed and crashed. When I met the owners in the morning they welcomed me and told me they weren’t sure whether to put the heater on or not. “Everyone’s different. Some people don’t like their rooms heated”. I filled in the registration forms and ordered bacon and eggs. Always good to try the local fare on the first day. “A lady dropped your bike off for you. We put it in the shed”. Kirsten Orr, the Gannawarra Shire’s Arts and Culture Assistant, had dropped it after a friend of Regional Arts Victoria’s local Creative Arts Facilitator, Kim Barnett, had given it to her to lend to me. That’s how it works in country towns. A friend of a friend you’ve never met lends you their bike to get around for the week. “There’s a lock with it so we could tie it up outside your room. Save you having you having to get it out of the shed.” “Sounds good.” Kirsten had bought a lock specially. Talk about an eye for detail. I was in Kerang to teach a group of Kerang Technical High School students to write plays. It’s a program I’ve developed called Finding Your Voice. I was doing a residency at the school for Regional Arts Victoria. The program is about giving young people a voice. Helping them to write and then perform plays. After we’d sorted out the bike Kim arrived to give me a lift to the school. On the way I was invited to watch rehearsals of the local production of Oliver later in the week. I wasn’t sure where or exactly when but it was nice to be invited. As we drove to school, which seemed miles away, but wasn’t, I was struck by the width of the streets. And the space. There was so much space. We arrived at the school and I was introduced to Natalie who was my contact at the school and who had set the residency up with Kirsten and Kim. She was warm and friendly and made me feel at home. She took me off to the library to meet Geradine and Debbie who looked after the Library where we were holding the workshops. I was too nervous to pick up that they were all a bit disappointed about the numbers. Not that I cared. It didn’t matter to me if there were eight or eighty, well maybe not eighty. On the way to the Library I was taken to the canteen to put in a lunch order. I ordered a cup of chicken and corn soup and a chicken kiev roll with salad and garlic sauce. I wasn’t sure about the garlic sauce but the canteen lady’s look told me to stop being a city slicker wanker so I went with it. I met the students and after perfunctory introductions explained what we were going to do. There was little in the way of reaction so the students logged in to their “writing devices” and away we went. I asked them to recall a conversation they had overheard in the past few days and write it down. It didn’t matter what the subject matter was or who was involved. As long as they heard it live, not on a phone, and they weren’t actively involved in the conversation. It might have been an exchange on the bus, or in the playground or at home. The content was secondary to the rhythm and tone, the pauses and silences. It wasn’t about grammatical correctness or sentence structure. “We don’t talk in full sentences and nor should your characters. They grunt and groan and ooh and ahh and…whatevs”. It’s the key to writing dialogue. To capture the way a character speaks. In my experience students find this liberating. They are unshackled from the fear of getting it wrong. There are no red pens in teaching playwriting. There was some resistance and some couldn’t remember a thing but after a bit of gentle persuasion everyone wrote something down. That’s what it’s about. Writing something down. It doesn’t matter if it’s only two words and a grunt. As long as it’s written down. Then I asked them to go out to the front of the room and read out what they’d written. “In front of everybody?” “Yes.” It didn’t take much to get the first few on their feet. I introduced the golden rules of not apologising and not commenting. Once the first few had a go the rest followed with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The last girl to get up only had one line. “That’s ok.” I told her. “Just read it.” “There’s been a death in the family.” Then she sat down. That’s what she had heard that morning. We moved on to writing lists of characters and settings and images. I encouraged them to think of what an audience might see. What might tell the audience about who the characters were and where they were. Signposts. Random descriptors of random characters and settings. All totally unrelated. And none of them could be wrong. I might have assumed they were all keen writers. Or, at least had an interest in writing. If I had I would have been disappointed to discover later in the week that most had signed up to get out of their other classes. To have a “bit of a bludge” in the last week of Term. A couple were interested in Drama and acting but not necessarily writing. One wanted to be a writer. A journalist. Not a playwright. It didn’t matter why they were there. All that mattered was that they were and that they wrote. The first few hours flew by without any hiccups and before we knew it was recess. Time for a cuppa. The Library Staff had organised a morning tea in the Library to introduce me to some of the Staff. English teachers and a few of the executive, including the Principal. An indication of the school’s generous attitude to a visiting artist and the inclusiveness of country towns. It might take forever to be regarded as a local but it doesn’t take a minute to be made to feel at home. After recess we got stuck back into the writing. They seemed to be enjoying themselves. A couple proudly told me that they’d never written so much in their lives. After a while I asked each student to read out a few of their character descriptions. I helped them to edit so that only the bare essentials were left. Things the audience could see. Things that stood out and identified the characters as individuals. There were plenty of laughs. Plenty of great characters too. The key to Finding Your Voice is hearing the work read out so that the class can “see” the characters and settings. At first it might be a bit confronting for the writers but after a while they seem to loosen up and enjoy it. The audience certainly do. There is something liberating about the process. It allows everyone to feel included because everyone can do it. Everyone can write a few descriptive words identifying character traits. It’s democratic, it’s fun and you can’t get it wrong. It’s also a way of unlocking a voice that might have been buried by a lack of confidence and stemming from that, self consciousness. It’s a way of encouraging literacy. Funnily enough, the vast majority of people seem to enjoy it too. We finished for the day after a good morning’s writing. I left the class with some work to continue with in the afternoon and homework. Although I didn’t call it homework. I called it “Overheard Voices”, a phrase I borrowed from a book on teaching playwriting by Jean-Claude van Itallie. I asked everyone to be aware of the way people talked. To listen to the way they communicated. I asked them to mentally record what they heard so that they could recall it the next day. They weren’t to write it down and they were definitely weren’t to record it on any form of device. It wasn’t about eavesdropping it was about observing. I picked up my lunch order and headed back to the motel fairly confident that I’d find my way. I could have been the only person in town as I wandered along sipping my soup, accompanied by chirping birds and the sound of cattle baying in the distance. It was a pretty good morning’s work. Back at the motel I finished off my lunch and sat down to do some of my own writing. There were no distractions and no excuses. Of course, I procrastinated for as long as I could. I re read notes, fiddled about with the research material I’d read a million times but finally there was nothing to do but write. Like all writers I have my own routine when I’m writing. I play music, chew gum and sip water. I start with a coffee or a tea. I don’t really listen to the music. It’s just there. To inspire me and, hopefully, seep into to me to help me write as well as the artists I’m listening to. I choose music that might suit the material or the characters and away I go. I disappear into whatever I’m writing. I never re read once I get going. If I kept going back over what I’d written I’d never get anywhere. While I’m writing I sometimes get very excited. It’s only when I re read it later that I realise how much re writing is required. That’s a process I’ve grown to enjoy. Re writing. When I started out I didn’t bother with too much re writing. That arrogance or naivety is self evident in the work. I love writing. I love the process. The doing. If I could sing I’d sing. If I had a musical bone in my body I’d play an instrument. If I could paint, I’d paint. I can’t do any of those things so I write. We can all write. It doesn’t matter if it’s any good. Who’s to judge anyway? And who cares? It’s the doing that matters. When I emerged from my writer’s retreat I wandered off down the street to find a feed. I came, inevitably, upon the Exchange Hotel. The Royal was across the road. There was probably a Commercial round the corner and a Railway near the station. That’s the way it is in Australian country towns. The Exchange served an excellent curry and probably an excellent schooner but I was having an AFD and drank the local tap water. Back at the Motel I put the heater on and settled down to Monday night on the ABC, which included the infamous Zaky Mallah exchange with Peter Dutton on Q&A. At the time I thought they were both out of line. The other panellists were more interesting than either of them. I woke revitalised and ready for action. I made my way to Kerang Technical High without getting lost and was greeted by whoever I passed along the way. It was like I’d been there for weeks. I signed in, put in my lunch order and waited for the students outside the Library. A passing member of the auxiliary staff saw me stamping my feet in the cold and let me in. “You’ll be warmer inside.” The students were champing at the bit and required little encouragement. They enthusiastically read out their overheard dialogue and started to capture the different voices they had heard. Inevitably they asked me if they could swear. “Within reason.” They were all very reasonable. There were a few “bloodys” and “shits” but that was about it. It’s hypocritical to ask a class to recall dialogue and then edit out the inappropriate bits. Fortunately most students I’ve dealt with in writing workshops have applied their own filter. Let’s face it, “bloody” and “shit” are hardly swear words. It was going really well. The girl who had recalled one line the day before now came up with four. I let them form their own groups, handed out some butcher’s paper and they started brainstorming. Putting one of their characters in a setting they all agreed upon. There was no need for the characters to relate or have any obvious connection. That would be revealed in the scene. The more different the characters, the more potential for an exciting scene. They also chose an overarching image. Like, “no strings attached” or “lost”. The group of two had halved. That didn’t matter. Writing workshops in schools require flexibility when it comes to unforseen occurrences and unexpected absences. Of which there are many. We moved on to writing dialogue. One play was set in a spaceship. Another in a rainforest. Who knew what was going to happen when their characters interacted? I love group work. I love that I never know if it’s going to work or not. I love the slight edginess of the whole process. It could all fall in a heap but it rarely seems to. That’s part of the joy of it. No one knows where it’s heading but most jump on board. I was escorted to Morning Tea in the Common Room where the whole staff assembled for a well earned break and any pressing announcements. The atmosphere was collegial but business like. The tea lady served me a cuppa from a big stainless steel pot and I was shown the “bikkies”. I sat down and shot the breeze with a few teachers. Everyone was friendly. They were also tired as it was the last week of term. A lot of people don’t understand why teachers need holidays. Those people haven’t tried to teach five classes of teenagers a week, aged anywhere between eleven to eighteen with a wide range of personality behaviours and each one requiring individual attention. Teachers are always giving. That’s why they are so tired at the end of a term. Back in the Library the plays were starting to take shape. Each group had written a page or so. They read them out. The response from the “audience” was generally positive. I had to monitor the “feedback” to prevent it becoming judgemental. Teenagers are notoriously judgemental, often most harshly on themselves. Finding Your Voice is about letting that go. There was a definite air of excitement in the room. I think this was partly to do with the knowledge that a performance was at the end of the process. No one said as much but everyone was aware of it. It raised the stakes for everyone. The Library Staff were incredibly supportive of the students and embraced the process wholeheartedly. There might have been a little bit of suspicion about the artist from the city who might have had tickets on himself but that seemed to have dissipated. As for the students they didn’t know who the hell I was and couldn’t have cared less so there wasn’t much point blowing my own trumpet. The Library Staff had to balance teaching their own classes, looking after the students and the day to day demands of running the library, which included re scheduling rooms as clashes came up. They had a lot of balls to juggle but they still managed to help my students with their devices, find the work they had lost and put up with my endless requests for assistance. By the end of Day 2 the whole thing was going swimmingly. I left them to continue developing their scripts and returned to the motel to wrestle with my own work. I began by re reading the previous days work and re writing. There was a skeleton there but it needed fleshing out. One step forward two steps back. That’s the way it is. As part of the residency I was asked to meet with some local writers. After a good session banging away at the keyboard I met up with Andrew Kelly and we headed off to the Royal to sit in front of the fire (a real one) and chew the fat about playwriting. I soon discovered that Andrew is not only prolific but has a serious following in the local area. One of his plays was so popular that there were scalpers flogging tickets to it out the front of the theatre. Not even Williamson could boast that. I certainly couldn’t. I usually have to bribe people to go to my plays. When you a dig a tiny bit below the surface it is amazing what you discover. All around Regional Australia there are thriving artistic communities producing work that no one outside those communities is aware of. Certainly not in the big smoke. The unheralded Arts scene, if you like. Andrew has not only tapped into this but he has revolutionised it by writing original work that the locals are flocking to. He has reversed the long established trend of regional theatre groups of performing “classics”, mostly by famous, international, dead playwrights. Imagine what would happen if all these theatre groups started performing plays by local or, at the very least, Australian playwrights? Andrew Kelly has proven that there is an appetite for original work that reflects local community interests and concerns. Australian theatre audiences like hearing Australian voices. They should be hearing them in Regional Areas more often. Emboldened by meeting a successful local playwright I found the local Chinese. It didn’t take long. The Chinese restaurant is as ubiquitous in country towns as are the Royals or the Exchanges. And just as reliable. I was a little nonplussed to discover I was the only “dine in” customer and had the rather large room to myself. The place was doing a roaring “take out” trade. I wondered when we had started adopting that phrase. When I paid my bill the waitress told me I didn’t have to give her a tip. I didn’t but I did. Day 3 at Kerang Tech High began with some students missing. Of course the missing ones had their groups plays on their devices. This meant frantic searching assisted by the Library Staff, Deb and Geradine. It also meant that a few groups were losing steam. Or more specifically, confidence. We were in the middle of the week and the performance day was on the horizon. Gentle cajoling saw everyone back on track, writing with reduced numbers but the plays, nonetheless, progressing. I got the students to read out their work and started making suggestions that they, by and large, accepted. Most of my suggestions revolved around there being an obstacle in the scenes that prevented the characters getting what they wanted. It was the toughest morning so far but we managed to get through it. I really needed the tea lady’s cuppa. I sat down with a couple of teachers, introduced myself and we ended up chatting about the furore over the Zaky Mallah controversy. It had grown from a storm in a teacup to a political firestorm. We talked about free speech, boundaries and attention seeking behaviour. Teachers are democratic by nature. They look for the good in everyone. That’s the biggest challenge in the job. The idea that you would put someone in the corner for life is antithetical to everything they believe in. I like teachers. I like them because of their refusal to take the easy option when confronted with student issues. They will move hell and high water in an effort to find a way to bring a recalcitrant student around. It is this, not necessarily imparting knowledge about a particular subject, that exhausts teachers. The interpersonal demands of the job. My students were writing and re writing. Using their overheard voices exercises to find appropriate dialogue for their characters. Finding the characters voices. I got them on their feet and they started “moving” their pieces. It’s probably the bit I love most about teaching playwriting. When the plays start coming to life. I worked with each group. Some were short of a performer so they borrowed one from another group. Everyone watched each other’s pieces developing. It was exciting. We talked about the space and the special nature of theatre. Chairs that became spaceships, characters that tottered around rainforests in imaginary high heels. The plays were breathing. After soup and a roll I was back in the motel wrestling with my own writing dilemmas. I felt as though I was making some progress. The chapter I was working on somehow ended with one of the characters stepping in a cow pat. It was time to unlock the bike and explore Kerang. It had been sitting forlornly outside my room for a few days and I was feeling guilty about not accepting the hospitality I had been so generously offered. I’m glad I did. The proprietor of the motel showed me a path that ran through some of the wetlands surrounding the town. I cycled off. It was sunset and I was transported to another world. Ibis’s, honeyeaters and rosellas squawked and swooped and settled in the River Red Gums and the Black Box’s that line the waterways. It was quite magical. That evening I met up with another local playwright. Elaine Keely writes plays and musicals for young people. She began, as some of us do, by discovering that there didn’t seem to be any plays written that would serve the particular needs of her primary school class. What could she do? Write one, of course. So she did. And she’s been writing ever since. She has turned writing performance pieces for primary school students into a cottage industry. She described the way she marshalled her son to help her send out script samples to hundreds of primary schools in the local area. Piles of scripts and envelopes and music samples bundled up individually and sent off to prospective takers. Elaine has racked up over eighty productions of her work. That’s a record any playwright would be envious of. We kicked off Day 4 with the obligatory overheard voices. The students were gaining in confidence. So much so that a few of them were now acting their socks off and I had to politely suggest they concentrate on the words rather than the histrionics. The dialogue they recalled spoke for itself and didn’t need too much embellishment. Things were hotting up. We were two sessions away from “showtime”. We discussed costumes and props and sets and decided to do without them and let the words speak for themselves. There were still a few casting issues due to absenteeism but that’s the nature of working in schools. It was also getting a bit tense and some of the students were feeling the pressure. Over morning tea I discovered that the Agricultural Assistant, who helps the students prepare cattle for presentation at shows, including the Royal Melbourne Show, was a fan of my grandfather’s and his merino breeding stud. Six degrees of separation in Kerang. After recess I was quickly brought back to earth by a brewing rebellion. One group had decided to pull the pin and weren’t going to perform their work. Or, more specifically, one of the students in one of the groups had decided she didn’t want to do it anymore. This had a trickle down effect of causing the other groups to lose confidence. A looming performance can have a curious effect on people. Even the most well adjusted professional actor can turn into a werewolf as opening night approaches. My students hadn’t expected to perform. They hadn’t expected to do much more than skip normal classes. Now they were confronted with the prospect of an audience and a few were getting very cold feet. It was the kind of bush fire that could quickly get out of control with teenagers. I did my best to douse the flames, assure them that they were doing well and get them back on track. They ran their pieces but there was something ominous afoot. For the first time in the week there was some piss taking from the groups watching. When one of them tossed his script away after a run I began to panic. Maybe it was all going to end in tears? My tears. I left them to rehearse in the afternoon and retired to my room to write about dresses in the 1930’s and ended up writing a chapter I’d never dreamt of. That evening I was invited to Kim Barnett’s for a meal. She was concerned I might be tiring of pub food. I’m not sure if it’s the official role of Regional Arts Victoria’s local Creative Arts Facilitator to feed visiting artists but it was much appreciated and was another example of the hospitality I was offered in Kerang. It was good to get my mind off the next day’s performance. I woke up in the early hours to the alarming thought that maybe the students wouldn’t show up for their performances. That my week in Kerang was going to prove to be a total disaster for Regional Arts Victoria and an embarrassment for me. I tried to assure myself that it was all about process, that the result didn’t matter. It didn’t help me get back to sleep. On the morning of the last day I thanked my hosts at the motel and settled the bill. It had seemed more like a room in someone’s home than a motel. I left my bag in the office and walked to the school. The thought that none of the groups would show up was occupying my mind. I knew there was an audience coming. Wouldn’t have looked too good it there was no show. I signed in for the last time and went the Library. Fortunately the students were there waiting for me. One group had bailed but the others were roaring to go. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and started rehearsing. There were nerves but also that wonderful sense of excitement that precedes a performance. The plays were looking good. So were the students. I retired for a cuppa at recess and jagged the winning ticket in the end of term raffle. A bag of vegetables. I hoped it was a good omen. Back in the Library a healthy audience had gathered. It included the Mayor and a Councillor. I wondered how many mayors attended play readings in schools in city constituencies. A local church identity was there as were a few parents and friends. The students were pumped. Some were rushing around the school getting friends out of class for the readings. They clearly weren’t ashamed of their work. The first play, set in the spaceship, took off and it wasn’t long before the first laughs came. The students were clearly enjoying themselves as were the audience. Generous laughter was followed by generous applause. The play set in the rainforest brought the house down. The students rose to the occasion and rode the laughs like seasoned professionals. The Q&A that followed was revealing. Incisive questions about the whole process from a captivated audience. It filled me with a lot more optimism than the Q&A I’d seen on the ABC on Monday night. The students took it in their stride. They weren’t too fussed by all the acclaim. Or if they were they hid it well. I have been teaching students to write and perform their own plays since I can remember. It’s no small thing to write and perform a play in front of an audience. I have seen innumerable potential disasters averted at the eleventh hour and witnessed countless minor triumphs. I am certain of one thing, there is something uniquely liberating for students to tell their own stories in their own voices in front of an audience. That’s what they did in Kerang.