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Sunday, May 22, 2011

My First Play

by Verity Laughton
Carrying Light
Carrying Light by Verity Laughton
The first play I wrote wasn't produced. A small theatre company asked me to write a play for them on a subject to do with a particular Aboriginal community, and set me up to work with an Aboriginal collaborator. We researched together, we talked a lot, she contributed a key idea and I physically wrote the play. So - my play, but impossible without her.

The small theatre company then folded. In a panic, because this was my first -but I hoped not my last - chance at a real gig, I shopped the piece around. Eventually another theatre company picked up both that play and commissioned me for two further plays. I don't know why I scored this trifecta. The first play was, I think, a good piece of work but I lacked professional experience and I think the Artistic Director of the theatre company took a real chance on me, for which I am still grateful.

My co-worker was not just a brave and clever woman, she was also an extremely fiery one and she came to blows with the company, in particular the Artistic Director. I was given a choice. The company would continue to work on the play but only with me. It was a bad moment. I had no option, I think, but to withdraw my play, otherwise I was complicit in yet another act of colonial theft. So that was that. The play has never been performed. The moral of this story is that the same person may both give and take away an opportunity and the same collaborator may both make and mar a piece. And you can't be too precious, or judgmental about that. It's a tiny industry, with complex networks of loyalty and opportunity. I think we've all done things we would have preferred not to.

So it turned out that the first play I wrote and had professionally produced was the first of those two other plays commissioned by the second company.  As it also turned out, just one month into writing it, I discovered I was pregnant for the third time. The baby was due in production week. I'd waited so very long for my professional debut. (I was 35 at the time). I remember sitting in the director's office sobbing, most unprofessionally.

And the playwriting lesson in this tale? It's a simple one. Everything has a context and what you think you care about most may not be what you actually do. I wrote the play; it went into rehearsal; and two days before the opening performance I had my baby. It was a traumatic birth and my son ended up on life support, not expected to live, and with an 85% chance of severe brain damage if he did.

But I was lucky. He did live and in fact - as a genuine miracle - he's also got his more than his fair share of pretty efficient marbles.   In the end I attended my first and the company's final performance of my first-ever professional production with my baby, recently released from his hospital crib, strapped to me in a papoose. I remember watching the play with a sense of total detachment. I'd cared so very, very much and now none of it mattered at all.

So, moral for any other writer - try your hardest to write your best. But win or lose, remember, it's only a play, a game, such stuff as dreams are made of. Real suffering is something quite different, and perhaps, if there's only a limited amount of luck around, you need to save some of it for that.

Verity Laughton is teaching a two-day course Start Writing for the Stage at the Centre on Sundays 11 & 18 June, 10am - 4pm.

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