The ‘close work’ of collecting and arranging
Bowerbird is the title chosen by innovative playwright Alana Valentine for her entertaining and perceptive mix of autobiography, insights into the theatre, advice to hopeful beginners and personal irritants. It is an apt title for this practitioner of “verbatim” theatre. Alana is dedicated to her work of collecting details and arranging them in ways that seduce her audience into taking on, even momentarily, her own generous outlook on a troubled but precious world.
Some of Valentine’s personal irritants concern common misconceptions about her chosen technique and craft. “So many people think that because anyone can write, writing is easy,” she says. Again, her method of playwriting, based on interviews and verbatim transcripts or archives and manuscripts, is often misunderstood as “merely reap[ing] the truth of what is already out there.” Valentine prefers the term “close work playwriting”, that is, writing which “is close to its source and keeps that source close in the process”.
Frequently, Valentine sources her own childhood experience to illustrate her advice. She vividly describes the agony of childhood “aquatic canaloscopies” and links it to the importance of being a good listener, the foundation of her success as a playwright. “Listen,” she commands, “with your ears, with your spirit, with your mind, with your gut.” Again, she draws on the experience of childhood hunger in a comical recollection of eating a rare treat, a Flake bar, to emphasise the essential component for artistic success, “profound hunger to have your voice heard”.
This hunger has taken Valentine into unfamiliar communities and challenging situations. Comin’ Home Soon (2013) emerged from writing classes at Goulburn Correctional Centre, reputed to be the toughest jail in Australia. She looks back at her naiveté in trying to engage the men in theatre games, appreciating why one of the inmates loped from the room saying, “This is bullshit”. “Be humble,” she advises “when you get egg on your face”, but nevertheless be persistent. Be persistent also when asked by a first interviewee for Ladies Day (2016) why “she didn’t just watch Brokeback Mountain” instead of writing a play about gay men who live in Broome.
While the experienced Valentine is very generous in offering practical advice (“buy a pin board and index cards”) and observations (“push the envelope but don’t tear it into a million pieces”), she is at her most comforting (and funny) when wrestling with her own problems. “Each time I write a play,” she says, “I find I need a different process to ‘crack’ the premise of a work, which is kind of annoying. [Sigh] You might think that experience would teach you how to ‘do it’.”
She is at her most inspiring when she indicates her hopes for the future of the theatre, and for emerging playwrights who must maintain faith and vision and hope despite the obstacles and challenges of the 21st century.
You have an opportunity to see an Alana Valentine play, The Sugar House, which opens at Belvoir St Theatre on May 5, 2018.
Currency Press, $29.99