Thoughts on a first play
Hydrarchos is a play I wrote. It debuted at NIDA’s Festival of Emerging Artists on the 23rd of February. And it was designed to be unperformable.
In 2018, I signed myself up for an Honours course so I could write a minor thesis- but, in order to do that, I also needed to make a creative work. The thesis was the easy part- I had know for months what topic I would cover. But up to that point, while I had been writing since I was a teenager, I would have never called myself a playwright. But to finish my thesis, I needed something.
Artists often talk about writing as an exercise in expression, in the drawing and holding of attention. A part of me has always hated this idea. For me, writing is an extraction. Words are pulled out, heaved out of me, like an exorcist wrenching a demon from a body. I can't sleep for thinking of words. I forget to drink water, eat food, see the world, when I am kept in the grasp of words. Writing a play to be shaped for general consumption felt as viscerally disgusting to me as a public autopsy. And yet, I agreed to do it. I set to work, creating a play to expel the inspiration from my system. I felt certain that my creation could never see the light of day. I threw practicality to the wind and tried to make it as unmanageable for directors and producers as possible.
I did this by having one of the characters be a 35-foot long skeleton of a sea serpent that speaks in poetry.
No one would ever let me do it. No one would give someone like me, 22 and brand new, the resources to build a puppet that large, to create a talking moving dinosaur skeleton. I had protected my creation from public scrutiny through intentional budgetary limitations. But that never prepared me for the gentle scrutiny for drafting and submitting.
I know that a person like me will hear the criticisms before the praise. I know they all meant well. But even in its embryonic form, Hydrarchos felt like a problem to be corrected. The feedback I received throughout 2018 slowly drained the drive from me. It makes no sense. It is too strange and confessional. I don't get it. The delirium of writing left me every time I let another person read it. Cold water thrown over a raging fire. Towards the end, I loathed the thing I had made. It broke my heart to create something that very few seemed to understand.
In October of 2019 it was finally submitted alongside my thesis. I got my degree, and left my creation in my past. I felt bitter about the experience. I was clearly not a playwright- how could I have been, when writing from my heart made me feel so empty and small? It was only ever read by a few people, and I was ready to keep it that way.
And then, Rikiah pulled it from the brink of obscurity.
Rikiah Lizarraga is one of my closest friends and one hell of a director. She has the keenest eye I know for the inscrutable. She can detect the strangeness of the human spirit and the depths of feeling, and reproduce it all with uncanny accuracy. She was always the biggest proponent of my silly dinosaur play. She watched me craft it, read the drafts, praised every single one. But, while she is a brilliant artist in her own right, I made sure to secretly temper her remarks in my mind. Since we were 15 years old she has supported me, through every mistake and triumph that growing up together brings. She was not an objective voice.
A year ago, she started her Masters degree at NIDA. She asks me if she could produce Hydrarchos. I said yes, because she is my friend. I said yes, because all I needed to do was edit my monstrous script down to size, and she would be the one to rear it.
But as I read my words once more, I felt the embers inside me begin to yellow again. I send her draft after draft until it was ready for rehearsal. Editing alone in my room during lockdown 2.0 made my play feel utterly hypothetical. And then, eight months after I first said yes, in a room full of actors and designers, we read my unstageable creation.
For the first time, I saw it. I finally ignored the voice in me telling me to run and hide. I watched Rikiah's actors feel what I had written all those years ago. To hear words you once poured your heart into find form and meaning in the mouths and minds of the artists around you is an out-of-body experience. I spent years convincing myself that the play I wrote, the little world that had captured and held me for years, was a terrible place, a wasteland of meaninglessness. But suddenly, characters had form. Sounds could be heard. I watched, when before I could only think and feel.
Suddenly, my self-indulgent fear gave way to wonder- at designs and performances, shapes and colours and sounds. The words began their sacred job of fuelling the creativity of others. I watched as a team of incredible people built my Hydrarchos. Last week, I saw the skeleton puppet hanging in the space, at the Reg Grundy at NIDA, for the first time.
I burst into tears.
Her pale bones, all gritty and real under hot theatre lights, made the last drops of shame fall from my skin. As I left the tech rehearsal, I whispered a word to the Hydrarchos, like I had done a thousand times before but only in my mind.
Thank you. I am so happy you exist.
Last night was our opening night. NIDA was full of mentors, friends, and the dreaded industry folk who hold our future in their hands. I felt a strange calm fall over me as the lights dimmed and the show began. I heard laughter at the right spots, the spots where I would smile as I poured over the script looking for errors. When it was all over, there were hugs and handshakes, praise pouring out from the big smiles of the people I respect most in this world.
It used to be that, as a teenager, I would walk through the full foyers of theatres after shows and feel the inscrutable buzzing of creation in me. I'd watch a play and go home and start writing. But on that night, the buzzing was all around me- in the air, the actor's costumes, the coloured lights. There was nothing left for me to extract.
I know this post may seem a little solipsistic , but I want to document this feeling, this moment in my life, because I feel a new chapter beginning. I'm writing a new play. I have projects lined up. I have the freedom to create that I always wanted. But the most important thing I know now is that the only person that held Hydrarchos back was me. I was so concerned about appearing to be self-indulgent that I made the most self-indulgent decision I could have- to bury and forget, instead of learning from. I poured a year of work into a project and was ready to abandon it out of fear. I have learnt that what I wrote and how I felt were two completely different things.
The play was always good enough. I was always good enough.
So, if you like, come see my little play. It, and the incredible team behind it, have changed my life for the better- it might not change yours, but perhaps it will change your evening.
That's all a playwright can ever hope for.