A fading August afternoon. Wednesday. I’m in my coat. It’s cold. Hands in gloves. Waiting. Standing in the terrace of Nimrod Street.

It’s been a big day. meeting with directors, potential directors, reading scripts submitted by aspiring playwrights, thinking about the Griffin Award.
I had just finished talking to an emerging writer about the director who is interested in working with her on her script, when I arrived for a coffee at the Tropicana. I ring another playwright. She’s lovely and I tell her I love her script. I’ve been reading for three weeks solid. I have started to get emails from playwrights assuming bad news- I delay them with a kind “not yet”. There have been lists of to-do’s. I’ve been spending all my time thinking about playwrights, producing playwrights, directing, dramaturgy. These thoughts swarm. I am simultaneously inspired and honoured by the hugeness of what I don’t know- what I haven’t seen- what I haven’t read of Australian playwriting. And Australia is only two hundred years or so old- at times like these I’m glad I am not Greek. Three thousand years of catching up of playwriting- sheesh!

What do I know about the Australian Canon? What are the great plays of the Australian repetoir? Who are the playwrights I studied at school? Stephen Sewell, Louis Nowra, Ray Lawler, Louis Esson, George Darrell, David Williamson? What was my impression? What do I remember feeling about it? What remains? There was a sense of the bushland- the land, a sense of England, Australian slang, men on horses, isolation and wilderness. A sense of worthiness. Each felt so irrelevant to me, as a teenager- I was interested in a globalised Australia- I was obsessed with high art.. and I felt that the language was a parody- literature which was trying to emulate a voice which wasn’t mine- a coarse voice- a rural voice. It felt strange. Those plays felt strange… and now on reflection it felt strange because they weren’t written by a young woman- they were written in their time and their place- a time and place that was indeed foreign to me. I felt like we all did celebrating Australia day or the bicentennial- all those mop hats and billy tea and “click goes the shears” songs felt strange. Perhaps because it was so white that history- but also because it was hard to understand what Australia meant to me. Me who didn’t leave the country until I was 24- white, mono-lingual, country-town dwelling me. What was Australia beyond meat pies, holden cars, men swearing and talking football and all the other cliches? It was too difficult to talk about. The plays seemed to reflect that idea of “Australia.” I felt fundamentally disconnected from the idea of Australia- and of the world of these plays.

The problem and the joy of plays is that they are a product of their time- their style, their preoccupations, gender politics, social politics, their genre.. all speak to an audience at a time and a place… all speak of universal themes, attempt to explain or explore fundamental human truths- but all are products of playwrights living in their context. So what is the value of a play? If it is a transient art form- theatre- spontaneous and ephemeral- what is the value of it being kept and preserved and printed? Why force teenagers to read these plays- they have enough to worry about with their own identity let alone having to be embroiled in the stresses of the national identity… Why print? Why record? Why photograph? Why post on a website? What is it in us, that desires to keep the moment? What drives us to document the fragile and insatiable, unrelenting development of art? Why notate?

To pass on. Why do we pass things on? To help theatre develop beyond what it is- and contribute to what it could be- what we aspire to- what is unfinishable.

In plays we find the comfort of history. The reassurance of ideas which confound, support, inspire, deny, caution, horrify us. We are in various states of flux- in love, philosophy and in physical or spiritual growth and plays reflect and balance the questions we are afraid to ask ourselves or are afraid to ask aloud of other.

So on Wednesday, I went to see the launch of john Romeril’s Collection of plays, “Damage, ” Published by Currency Press… i wanted to hear the panel talk on the canon. I wanted to see the man who has contributed a huge amount of time and passion and over 70 plays to the Australian theatre. I wanted to see John McCallum speak on the lost plays- an academic’s perspective. I wanted to hear my peer speak about what it means to her to be writing plays in this landscape- Rebecca Clarke . I wanted to hear Artistic Director Sam Strong speak about new and old plays and programming. Sitting next to Verity Laughton, watching as Deb Oswald and Ned Manning took a seat… Katherine Brisbane, Nick Parsons… I watched as the statesmen of Australian writing and publishing sat and listened.

Romeril spoke and all I can say is I wish all the emerging playwrights I have been reading heard him: he spoke of playwriting as a national treasure, understanding the entertainment industry as a business. He spoke of culture being a living thing- that Australia as a continent has had song and dance on this ground for 60,000 years. We need to not forget that in 1872 there was the creation of mass literacy through the education department… “the myth that we live in a barbarous culture should have been shot out of the water”. He spoke of refusing a commission from the STC, because he didn’t know Sydney enough- and he felt that if was to write for that theatre, he needed to ” be answerable to the citizens in which it operates.” He reminded us that theatre is a live medium, and that you are a live voice… live performance is hugely seductive and a great way to lead your life.” He spoke of the importance of reminding himself of the importance of writing something that felt important summing up “Damages” as “If I only had eight hours to account for Australia- this would be it.” Wow.

McCallum spoke of many things. The importance of plays to be included in rep- not for worthiness sake- but having had the question asked “What’s in it for us?” He spoke of writing for specific theatres and spaces. He reminded us that once upon a time, there was no development for plays, and that often writers were not often in the rehearsal room working with actors (hence some awkward stage directions) He spoke of Suzannah Pritchard who gave up on writing plays her play Brumby Innes became the novel Coonardoo. Without certain theatres (eg La Mama) there would be no John Romeril, no Williamson…

Rebecca Clarke spoke of her need to self educate about Australian plays and playwrights as it is not something taught in Drama Schools (she trained as an actor in Queensland and has since gone onto write plays- “Unspoken” which won the NSW literary Award in playwriting in 2006 and “Belonging” which is one of three shortlisted plays for this year’s QLD premier’s literary Awards).. she spoke of being self taught and self seeking… She spoke of the optimism she has about playwriting collectives- and the support she felt amongst the community of writers.

For me, plays and theatre in general is about being there. Being present. And I am glad I was. I’m glad I got to hear the discussion and learn more from those who have been doing this a lot longer than me.

Afterwards, in the terrace house on Craigend Street- Romeril was munching cheese and juggling a wine glass and conversation with well wishers and colleagues. Finding a slither of a break in the conversation, I said hello, asked him to sign my book and thanked him for being bold- speaking simply and beautifully about writing- about his huge contribution to theatre. I thanked him for having courage. He signed my book, ” Gus: Thanks for attending the launch. I hope you enjoy, JR”

As John McCallum says in his introduction to Damages: ” In the theatre we forget our past at great peril, for without history new writers have to keep reinventing the wheel”… We need our plays printed, read, studied- to know what has lead us here. To keep us in touch with who we are and where we are. We need to be reminded of those who have been before us- find comfort and direction in what they have learnt- or survived. And we need to be reminded that without knowing our context we float aimlessly- without anchor or compass- bumping into ideas and the flotsam and jetsam of cultural iconography and cliches- without knowing why. What’s in it for us? As McCallum would ask- what is a collection of plays got to do with us? What does Esson, Buzo, Hewitt have to do with me, them, those teenagers? It has lead us here to this point on the cultural map- and it’s up to us to guide the ship forward, come what may. And I for one am grateful to have some history in my back pocket.