Songs of the Sea draws on the author's responses to her immediate environment.
A walk on the beach fuels the creative process, which she describes as fundamentally Dionysian.
Whilst researching for the script I am developing called Songs of the Sea, I decided to go back to basics and reflect on the origins of theatre. In doing so, I inadvertently discovered some fascinating points of intersection on my own life journey, that gave added meaning to my (perhaps) crazy desire to write a new performance piece.
I started with reminding myself about theatre's historical roots in Athenian dithyrambs - ancient hymns sung in honor of the god Dionysus. This led me to think about the Apollonian versus Dionysian philosophical/ psychological concept of the dichotomy between starkly opposing forces, that draws on the symbolic association with Zeus' two sons: Apollo, who stands for reason and logic, versus Dionysus, who stands for irrationality and chaos. Indeed, perhaps the latter could be said to be the driving force behind my decision to try to create something from nothing, in the face of there being no good logical reason to do so. (Perhaps, Dionysian forces were the fundamental ones behind most acts of creativity.)
... but getting back to the origins of theatre...
Before actors, there was only a chorus in which participants dressed up in costume whilst the hymns were sung. Eventually, a wandering bard called Thespis was recognised as the first real actor when he recited poetry from the back of a cart, and hence, the word thespian has come into the language from that day in the 6th century BC onward. Thespis, it seems, was not just an actor, but a writer - for he had written his own material in order to take part in a competition held at the 'City Dionysia' - an entertainment festival - at which he had become the winner.
The story of Thespis led me to think about a theatre in Sydney with which I had had a long association, and whilst I was reminding myself that New Theatre is the oldest theatre in continuous production in Australia, I stumbled on a few other 'firsts', such as the fact that a director I had worked with at 'the New' - John Tasker - was the same person who had established the South Australian Theatre Company (in 1965), which later, via Don Dunstan's initiative, had become the State Theatre of South Australia (1972), and was now, (since 1980), the State Theatre Company of South Australia. I'd worked (as costume designer), with John Tasker (as director) as long ago as 1981, on a production written by Jean-Claude Grumberg and translated by Tom Kempinski titled The Workroom.
In its official history booklet, the authors of New Theatre's The New Years 1932- (The Plays, People and Events of 75 Years of Sydney's New Theatre) point out that in the 1980s, there was a 'paucity of contemporary Australian plays compared with those available from overseas' (2007: 29). Certainly, The Workroom falls into this category. Set in the immediate postwar period in Paris, The Workroom was written by Grumberg to acknowledge the horrors of the Holocaust, as well as reflect on the wartime situation in Paris where the scent of complicity and collaboration still hung in the air. My memories of the play are that it was a reflective, perhaps dramatically understated piece that detailed with precision the petty squabbles of a group of workers whose lives were never going to be the same again, but who could not bring themselves to openly express the anguish and terror of the war, particularly the situation of the Jews. What strikes me about Grumberg's motive for writing the play is his need to hold a mirror up to his society, not with forceful judgement, but with the subtle strength that playwright's can weave through the language and interactions of their characters.
Certainly, this sort of impetus has not gone out of fashion and, at this point, I am reminded about The Merger - written and performed by Damian Callinan. Fortunately for me and other locals, Callinan's one-man show had come to Yankalilla, courtesy of Country Arts SA and Books & Words Group. Callinan, well-known as a comedian, had been commissioned by Regional Arts Victoria and Vic Health to write a show which would subtly address issues of racism in regional communities. Described by one commentator as 'having his finger on the socio-political pulse and a firm hand on the vernacular' (Bradford-Syke, 2012), Callinan's performance pointed to one of the advantages of being a writer-actor, in the sense that he was in consummate control of his medium which he brilliantly tailors to each audience, with the clever inclusion of specific local references and relating to various audience members as bit-players in the narrative.
Callinan's show also demonstrates the value of developing Australian plays, and this leads me to briefly mention my disappointment at not being able to attend, (because of a prior arrangement in NSW), the National Play Festival 2015, which is being held for the first time in Adelaide on 22 - 25 July. Playwriting Australia, which has organised the festival, is the national body working with playwrights and theatre artists to encourage and develop more Australian voices for the stage. Now, having read a little more about the opportunities on offer, I am cursing myself that I have a tendency to be a bit of a recluse when it comes to nurturing my creativity, and that I did not discover this potential opportunity sooner.
Living so far out of the city is perhaps one drawback, though what the countryside offers in terms of reconnecting with nature, is an irresistible lure. The Dionysian versus Apollonian conflict I face every day comes in the form of the desire just to be outside in the garden versus the need to construct something tangible from my intellect and imagination. Having spent the better part of five years thinking about and manifesting my last long creative endeavour, perhaps I have been conditioned to believe that my self-worth is tied-up with leaving some kind of literary legacy - though one commentator briskly reminded me the other day, that what I had written was already 'out of date'!
...On that note, perhaps I'll stretch my legs, check the wood fire and reflect on what might have been going through Thespis' mind when he decided to enter the 'City Dionysia' festival. And I may even go for another walk on the beach.