Sunday, 14 January 2018

What we did the second half of 2017

What on earth have I done in the months since we last updated our group activities? Well, mostly PhD stuff. I’ve been reading and reading, and I’ve written more (draft) chapters of my exegesis, with one completed more or less to my satisfaction. I’ve published a play at the Australian Script Centre (The Red Cross Letters); and I’ve interviewed Polish and Jewish World War II and in some cases extermination camp survivors for the play that will be the creative project part of the PhD. That was pretty humbling. I’ll be travelling to Poland next April to complete the research.

And a play of mine, The Zoo Keeper’s Daughter was a runner up (to a terrific piece by Katie Pollock) in the Griffin sponsored Martin Lysicrates Prize so there was a bit of a reading of that in October this year at the Riverside Theatre.

So. A holding pattern. Which is just fine.

The Arnotts Assorted nature of the first half of 2017 continued, and ramped up, in the second half. My brain changed gears many times (sometimes within the space of a week) between teaching, adapting, rewriting, TV, musicals, and making a cast recording.

The lead-up to October was all about The Red Tree, a musical inspired by Shaun Tan’s picture book for the National Theatre of Parramatta, composed by Greta Gertler Gold, starring Nicola Bowman and directed by Neil Gooding. Greta and I then set to work raising funds to make a recording, which will be out soon.

With first Andrea James and then Bjorn Stewart, I taught a group of exceptional actor/playwrights for PlayWriting Australia’s Muru Salon. I also ran courses for Griffin and the NSW Writers’ Centre.

Following on from the Maxi Shield/AIDS awareness video for ACON I wrote another, about gay men and STIs, voiced by my darling dad.

Thanks to an intro by fellow 7 Vanessa Bates, I wrote my first Play School ep. (piglets!). There were also two development workshops—with director Sarah Giles for Bell Shakespeare, and on a new play with PWA. And I got out my adaptation of Molière’s The Hypochondriac to whittle down cast size and generally make better for the upcoming Darlinghurst Theatre Co production.

In picture-book land, along with my collaborator Antonia Pesenti and the Museum of Sydney we developed and launched Alphabetical Sydney: Creative Lab, an exhibition based on our book that runs at the MoS until August 2018.

Wait, what, is it another new year? Gosh it’s hard to think about the last 6 months of 2017. I know stuff happened because I am totes knackered. But what? Hmmm Ok so all the plays I was working on this time last year are still being worked on …

Trailer is being published by Currency which means proofs and edits etc … Captain Dalisay has been written and worked on and has an ‘early draft reading’ with Tantrum Theatre … A Ghost in my Suitcase is becoming more magical and fabulous and opens in Melbourne later this year! Huzzah! And The Magic Pudding is being its own fabulous, grumpy, spindly legged self. It will open this year too, in Sydney.

There is the making of the web series (All My Eggs) and some theatre directing as well—more on that later.

My sister is still doing brilliantly and …

I have a writing studio! In my backyard! My excellent fellow Christopher built it and I am sitting at the desk as I type, looking out of the recycled leadlight window at the garden. A writing studio, as well as being an excellent place to write in, is also an excellent place to drink champagne in the evening.

That’s a pretty happy new year in anyone’s book.

Everything I did in the second half of 2017 was eclipsed by my work at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. I began working for the RC in 2016, and was part of the team which wrote just under 4000 narratives based on the voices and experiences of survivors who came forward to speak to the Commission. They are available on line here.

In the second half of 2017, I moved into the report co-ordination team which edited, referenced, cross-referenced, end-noted, fact-checked and proof-read the 17 volumes of the Final Report. The findings and recommendations are forensic and unequivocal, and were welcomed by the communities of survivors who had been heard and believed at last. The full report is available on line here.

Working at the Commission was a life-changing experience, one in which power was on the side of the vulnerable, humanity was not overlooked or lost, and our better selves stepped up to the plate. I’ve been reflecting on the fact that I have rarely had an equivalent experience working in the arts, and this fact makes me sad …

By the end of the year I had also taught or mentored about 75 scriptwriting students or emerging playwrights, so I was feeling pretty story-saturated. However, I did have some breakthroughs with my own plays. Jump for Jordan has been included in the 2019-2022 HSC Drama Syllabus, and a sparkly new edition has just been published by Currency Press. It was also selected as one of three Australian plays to be showcased at the 2018 International Women’s Playwrights’ Conference in Santiago, Chile, so I am now trying to get some Spanish under my belt. Also, my play Tales From The Arabian Nights, which was first produced in 2004, clocked up its fifteenth production. In this adaptation, the King is killing refugees rather than queens, and schools in particular produce the play because of its unforeseen enduring relevance.

In the months since leaving the Commission, I have struggled to get back to the land of irony and black comedy, my natural playwriting habitat. However, persistence paid off, and the first draft of my new play Flame Tree Street is alive and well and leading the way.

Still feel totally depressed about Trump, Brexit, the rise of anti-immigrant nationalism in parts of Europe, the plight of the Rohingya, Erdogan’s crackdown on the media in Turkey, not to mention Australia’s ongoing punishment of asylum-seekers and Duffer vilifying Africans to score political points.

On a cheerier note however, marriage equality is now legal and …

The Book of Thistles was released in October. With a play or radio script you rehearse or record and there’s a season or broadcast date, but a book has no opening night or fixed run; you just hope that people somewhere are reading it … Anyway, I’m delighted to have the book in the world. More info about The Book of Thistles—including reviews—on the publisher’s website here.

October also saw me back in Penrith at The Q/Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre working on a new commission, Yellow Yellow Sometimes Blue. The creative development workshop with director Nick Atkins and actors Wadih Dona and Harriet Gordon-Anderson culminated in an open work-in-progress reading at the Penrith Regional Gallery. Yellow Yellow Sometimes Blue will be produced in November as part of The Joan’s 2018 season. Very happy to be collaborating with Nick and the team at The Q/Joan again.

Work continued on my radio feature Seoul City Sue, which is now partially recorded. We’re looking to complete the piece early 2018.

What else? Teacup in a Storm, won a 2017 AWGIE Award for Community and Youth Theatre. I did some research in New Zealand for a couple of embryonic projects. Good With Maps had an Edinburgh season, gathered great reviews and co-incidentally reconnected me with two old friends from my London days.

I have been intensely involved this last six months completing my studies in youth work. It has been both a responsibility and a privilege to train and gather experience in the sector. It has also been grounding, stimulating and meaningful because the focus is on strategies for supporting young people and also in engaging in social justice activism.

I have only had small pockets of time to focus on my visual art projects. In the main they have been in response to the occasionally confronting nature of the community sector. I seem to work in cycles from the need to do portraits of colleagues to strange mythological imaginings to the latest series of nature bursting into bloom. A selection of these can be seen on my Instagram feed.

But there has been one writing project that has stayed with me—it's a difficult play that is struggling to be reborn. Luckily the writer and dramaturge Alison Lyssa has, with such generosity of spirit, urged the project on. When I couldn't hold the play in my head anymore she has been able to reflect back what the work is and draw me back into its world. She has supported me to make the unseen connections and troubleshoot how best to push internal logic to the limit visually and psychically. It is a rare gift to be so in tune.

I’ve discovered that writing a novel and having a full time job don’t leave much time for anything else. Every ‘writing’ moment has been consumed by the book I am trying to write. I am now on the home stretch. I can see the finishing post but have no idea when I’ll get there.

This book has been with me for my whole life. It’s fiction based on fact. I’ve found that fictionalising the story has given me a lot of freedom and taken me places I had no idea I’d go. I know the story backwards but I’m only just discovering how it unfolds. This is exciting and scary at the same time. When I sit down to write I often have no idea where I’m going. For instance, yesterday morning I wrote a scene (I can’t help calling them ‘scenes’) set at a christening. I had never thought about a christening, even less that there would be a character called ‘William’ who was getting christened. But, now there are both. That’s the weird and wonderful world I have entered.

There are times when I sit down to write that I doubt whether I can actually write this thing. I’ve never felt this before. Never with any play, or article or story. Certainly not with Playground Duty. I don’t have any idea what this means. I’ve never felt like this about a piece of writing. I’ve never been intimidated by writing something in the way that I am intimidated by this. It’s weird. There are days when I have to force myself write it. That’s never happened before.

Some days are good. Some bad. Like most things really.

I’m writing this from the airport. I’m flying to Katherine to participate in a Creative Development with Lee Lewis, Fraser Corfield, Tommy Lewis and Errol Lawson. I haven’t worked in the theatre for so long I can barely remember what it’s like! Who knows what will come of it?

Who knows when I’ll finish my book? All I do know is I’ll be back teaching full time at the end of January so I better get cracking.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

THE RED TREE: Still time to catch the show, and Kickstarter campaign

Hilary says:

"Welcome to the final act:
Welcome to my gastrointestinal tract."

So sings the evil fish as he prepares to digest our heroine.
You still have a chance to see this actually happening, live on stage - 'The Red Tree' closes on Saturday night, and plays two shows a day until then.
Find times and tickets here.

The creative team is very proud of what we've created, and the show has had only rave reviews.

Meanwhile, you still have time to pre-order your original cast recording! Our Kickstarter campaign is kicking on for another 6 days. A mere $15 buys you a digital download, $25 for a CD, and there are plenty of other tantalising rewards all the way up to commissioning a song especially for you, by myself and composer Greta Gertler Gold. Make your pledge here!

A massive thanks to all who have already contributed, for their support of new Australian work and particularly for original Australian musicals.

Photo credits: Noni Carroll

Friday, 22 September 2017

THE RED TREE, new tickets released!

Hilary says...
Only a few more sleeps until we start rehearsals for 'The Red Tree', a musical inspired by Shaun Tan's beautiful  picture book of the same name.

The National Theatre of Parramatta commissioned me to adapt the book, and I have had a very happy time collaborating with old chum and brilliant composer Greta Gertler Gold. Directed by Neil Gooding, designed by James Browne, and featuring rising star Nicola Bowman, it tells the story of a young girl who decides one day she's going to stay in bed - however her imagination takes her to far stranger places than those she fears in the outside world.

Greta on keyboards will be joined by the hot licks of Ben Fink and the groovy beats of Bonnie Stewart - all of them simultaneously singing, acting and possibly doing some stealth puppetry...

When I figure out how to add an audio link, I'll treat you to a song demo.

Meanwhile, grab a ticket while you can. The show is selling fast, but new tix have just been released for FRIDAY OCTOBER 19. There are also a few seats still available for some previews, and the final shows.

Also, watch this space for upcoming info on our Kickstarter campaign: we plan to make a cast recording. We'll be offering all kinds of fabulous rewards, including Greta and I composing a song just for you!

Book & lyrics by Hilary Bell
Music by Greta Gertler Gold

Riverside Theatres, Parramatta
October 20 - 28
All ages

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Believe the Hypo!

I'm excited and delighted to say that Darlinghurst Theatre will be doing the world premiere of 'The Hypochondriac' in their 2018 season. The fabulous Jo Turner will direct.

I'm calling my treatment of Moliere's play a 'new version' rather than a straight adaptation, because I've taken many liberties with it. I've updated it to contemporary Australia while keeping the French 18th-century extravagance. I've dropped or conflated characters, rearranged revelations, and played very fast and loose with the final act, taking it into classic farce territory.

The opportunity to shower the proceedings with scatological gags was too much to resist - so it's a cornucopia of bed-pans, enemas and stool samples. And Moliere's between-scene pastorales have been replaced with vaudevillian pharmaceutical ads as if performed by Benny Hill.

Hope you can come along!

Meanwhile, here's the rest of what promises to be a great season at the Eternity: Darlinghurst Theatre Season 2018


Wednesday, 30 August 2017


This is a quick post to celebrate Noëlle's recent success in the 2017 AWGIE Awards. Her play, Teacup in a Storm shared equal billing in the prize in the Community and Youth Theatre award with Lachlan Philpott's Michael Swordfish. Woot! say we at 7ON! We're so proud of our compadre, and congrats to Lachlan, too.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Guidance, Gee-ups, and Such...

In one of the 7-ON email-go-rounds we were discussing texts that we’d each found useful over a lifetime of writing for stage, and in some cases, screen. We also found out that some of us – well, one of us, I think – are stage-writing-manual tragics; and some use a very targeted number of such references, instead turning to other fave texts as support during the writing process. We thought at least some of these references might be useful to other writers out there, even if only to send you back to your own faves with renewed vigour! names, no pack drill but here’s a bit of a list, plus a few comments.

We had a range of opinion on the ubiquitous Robert McKee (the Story Seminars) and Christopher Vogler (The Hero’s Journey) tomes. I suspect (it’s Verity here) both might be useful reading even if you only do so to move on from; but others of us have found them beside the point. Some of us teach a fair bit. One of us commented that for teaching, she has found the first and second editions of a book by Paul C Castagno: New Playwriting Strategies: A language based approach to playwriting 2001, and New Playwriting Strategies: language and media in the 21st Century 2012 to be indispensable. This is because “(Castagno) assembles a glossary of terms to describe the workings of plays which reject the 3-act structure / the hero’s journey / Aristotle.” She went on to say, “Basically, it was the first book I found that could explain my own work to me. Very liberating.” A quote from Castagno might be apposite here. He writes –  “Problems emerge when traditional terms are applied to new approaches. Because the old terms do not fit, we assume something is wrong with the play... With such widespread entrenchment of (old) terms and constructs it is important to construct a new idiom that will accurately or persuasively represent a different premise or characters" (Castagno 2001 53). 

Another of us offered Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott...which is “not strictly a playwriting book, in fact not at all but a brilliant book for writing with heart.” This 7-ONer stressed that she also reads a lot of scripts and learns from those. Which is something we all should be doing all the time, I guess. Quote: “I just finished the deadset brillo John by Annie Baker...”

Two of us can vouch for The Playwrights Workbook by Jean-Claude van Itallie as a brilliant circuit breaker on the one hand and means of getting started on the other. Another offering was The Playwrights’ Workout: Exercises for the Dramatic Imagination edited by Liz Engleman and Michael Bigelow Dixon. And all of us have a love of/dependence upon Roget's Thesaurus, The Poet's Manual and Rhyming Dictionary and either the Macquarie or Oxford Dictionary (though – confession – this one of us has lately been seen going straight to the web for synonyms and definitions and such!)

Other inspirational titles mentioned included A Journey Through Other Spaces: Essays and Manifestos, 1944-1990 by Tadeusz Kantor, edited and translated by Michael Kobialka. And…another more recent manifesto (2010), not about performance writing, but rather a collage of quotes, thoughts and appropriations exploring the bending of form and genre and the lure of the real. This one’s by David Shields, and the title is Reality Hunger: a Manifesto.

And…I am the manuals tragic. I will read any and every one I can get my hands on. I’m not sure why. I find them all useful in different ways, even the ones that irritate me. One of the ones I found most pompous overall offered me the most useful series of suggestions regarding dialogue that I have met with in my playwriting life. And I will no doubt borrow/buy all of those mentioned by my colleagues here as and when time/libraries/finance permit... My current fave is John Yorke’s Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them. How wonderful to meet such a well-educated, thoughtful and energetic mind. (But yes, his approach is a more or less conventional one, for those who avoid such things). Two others that never fail to inspire (me) are Seamus Heaney’s Preoccupations: Selected Prose and Ursula Le Guin’s Dancing at the Edge of the World. I know. They’re not about playwriting. But for a words person – just so great!

Sunday, 9 July 2017


Okay, time for the six-month round-up. I’ve just looked back at some of our previous round-ups. Put together, they provide a fascinating example of the on-going joys, banalities (i.e. Hard Slog! Boring But Necessary Tasks!), large (WOOT!) and small (woot!) triumphs, hopes and expectations, both confirmed and dashed in the play-writing life in Oz in this early part of the twenty-first century. It’s interesting to be participating in an accidental social history….


I’ve been working as a full time narrative writer at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse since September last year. I’ve learned the art of writing narratives that convey the voice and experience of survivors, and reckon that I must’ve written in excess of 80,000 words during my time there. The 3500+ narratives that our team have written will be available for the public to read when the Commission’s report is tabled in December.

The need to work full time, and to also juggle teaching and mentoring commitments, has meant no time or headspace for dramatic writing. However, I did manage to clear two periods of about a week to do a writing/research binge on my plays-in-progress The Secret Warzone and Flame Tree Street which exist as prototypes, as rough as guts zero drafts which is the best I can do until time becomes available in the months ahead.

Teaching, mentoring and dramaturgy have otherwise kept me busy. I ran the Page to Stage playwriting course at the National Theatre of Parramatta, and continued to be part of the Artistic Advisory Council of Milk Crate Theatre. I began mentoring a young writer through the Starlight Foundation, and worked as a dramaturge on the Iqbal Barkat’s project Terrorist/Apostate which had a showing at the Riverside Theatres at Parramatta. I also delivered a speech to this year’s HSC Drama Students during the WritersOnStage event at the Seymour Centre which ATYP later published online.

Ending a tortuous era, I graduated from the University of Wollongong with a doctorate in April that evolved my playwriting knowledge and practice. And a couple of weeks ago, I saw the bright-eyed acting students at Charles Sturt University perform my adaptation Tales from The Arabian Nights with a gravitas I did not know was possible.


I have often remarked (whinged, actually) on the up and down life of the fancy free, freelance and fairly fab life of the playwright.  Sometimes you are up amidst the clouds and tweety birds and sometimes you fall so far down it feels like you’re digging out the mud from your back teeth.

This six months is no exception but a couple of jolly things have recently happened which makes things more tweety bird than muddy teeth.

The first is that my 2016 play Trailer just received an AWGIE nomination. Yay. And especial yay because I am in the most marvellous company including my brilliant fellow 7-ONner, Noelle.

The second is that my new play Captain Dalisay has been included in Playwriting Australia’s Duologue scheme which means I get to work with awesome dramaturg Jane FitzGerald. Woohoo!

I’m still working on A Ghost In My Suitcase for Barking Gecko and actually I had a fantastic workshop this year in Perth with Artistic Director Matt Edgerton and the cast and creatives – more please! And I’m writing an adaption of The Magic Pudding which is excellent fun and has honed my baking skills not a whit.

But maybe the thing that is the most tweety bird of all is that it has been 12 months since my sister was operated on for tongue cancer. And she is officially cancer free and doing great! She is so vibrantly alive and so fantastically well and how can I not be flying high and happy as a result?


It’s been a Cadbury’s Assorted kind of year so far, with many things going on. The main event has been my musical adaptation of Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree, for the National Theatre of Parramatta. Working with composer Greta Gertler Gold, an old friend who lives in New York, has been a joy. It feels like one of those special projects where the gods smile and things just work. Neil Gooding is directing, James Browne designing, and it features Nicola Bowman and a fabulous band. We have a second creative development in August and open in October: watch this space.  

I wrote the script for a little film for ACON’s website: A happy collaboration with Maxi Shield, the AIDS Council of NSW and Frost.

Seven Stories, created with Ensemble Offspring, video artist Sarah Jane Woulahan and seven composers, all women, went off at the City Recital Hall in June, and we’re now looking at a future life for it.

This past month I’ve had the pleasure of indulging my fascination with Sydney history on a project with the State Library of NSW. I’ve been teaching for Griffin, the NSW Writers’ Centre and PlayWriting Australia’s Muru Salon. And I collaborated on Justine Clarke’s Look Look It’s A Gobbledygook, now playing at the Opera House, where I fulfilled a long-held dream: writing songs with Peter Dascent for Justine to sing.


I finished The Book of Thistles and sent the manuscript to the publisher in February. Researching and writing it has been a long haul and a huge part of my life. I almost didn’t know what to do with myself in the weeks immediately following its completion. Fortunately, I had a trip to London booked for March/April and when I got home, there were the various stages of book production to occupy me—editing, proof reading, cover design, marketing blurb, etc. The Book of Thistles is part accidental memoir, part environmental history and part exploration of the performative voice for the page. It fuses essay, monologue, poetry, digressions and archival collage and it will be out in October. Very exciting and more than a little terrifying.

What else? I’ve been working on a radio script for the ABC. Good With Maps had a short Sydney return at Belvoir Street Theatre to help raise funds for its Edinburgh Fringe season in August. And Teacup in a Storm, which was produced last year by The Q/Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, has been nominated for a 2017 AWGIE Award (Community and Youth Theatre). Which is especially sweet as I’ve just started work on a new theatre project with The Q/Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre.


My day job during the last six months has been to continue my PhD in political theatre (Creative Arts PhD) at Flinders University, which is both fun and a challenge. But it’s reasonably early days as yet. My Candidature was only confirmed last November, so I have much more work to do before I can feel comfortable in this new jungle.

In April 2017, Brink Productions produced my semi-verbatim play, Long Tan. This has been a long journey for me (yes, I know that’s a cliché!): more than three years, lots of hard yakka, and much learning. But. In the end, we had a beautiful play about a very difficult and complex subject. We were rewarded with great audience and critical response. I was very proud of what we all – director, creative team, actors and production team – achieved. And the response from the veterans who were able to be there for first night was especially meaningful for me.

A poem of mine, Kangarilla, Summer, 2016 was featured in Black Inc’s, Best Australian Poems, 2016. The poem commemorated someone I and those close to me loved very much. If ever a poem of mine were to succeed, I would have wanted it to be this one. So that, too, was a moment.


The first six months of 2017 have been as challenging as any I can remember. I started my third new teaching job in three years. It’s been a wild old ride. Three years ago I surprisingly found myself teaching part time at Melbourne Grammar, of all places. Then last year at the grandly named but curiously administered Australian Performing Arts Grammar School and, finally, this year at International Grammar School.

What has made this year challenging is that at my ripe old age I find myself teaching full time with the most demanding timetable I have ever had. What it has meant is that I have had to abandon a number of writing projects or, at the very least, to defer them. I realised that teaching 31 periods a week along with 3 playground duties and numerous other tasks wasn’t going to leave me much time for writing.

When I say abandoning projects I mean I haven’t had the energy to pursue production options that in years past I would have pursued. Specifically, with Tsunami, a play that I’m very proud of but which I fear will never see the light of day.

I haven’t got the energy to rail against the dying of that light anymore. I have instead focussed on short-form writing that I can manage in the time constraints I am confronted with. These have taken the shape of articles for various publications, mainly focusing on Education and Teaching (

The one big project I am ploughing on with is my novel. That I will never abandon
Fortunately, school holidays and the odd weekend provide me with time to return to it I don’t know if anyone will ever read it, but I do know that I am loving writing it.

I also know that 7ON remains the beacon of hope in an otherwise personally depressingly dark theatre landscape.

Our new project is going to be a cracker.

On another note, while I was wallowing in self-pity about my playwriting career, I received this note. It was strangely reassuring.

“Dear Ned,
I am the speech and Drama Coordinator at Ascham School in Edgecliff. We run a large program of about 480 students through the school. Every year our students sit Trinity College London Examinations and enter the Sydney Eisteddfod. This evening a group of our 15year olds performed monologues in the eisteddfod. One of our students had chosen a piece from your play Luck of the Draw. It’s a popular choice each year, the girls really enjoy it. I just thought you may like to know that she won first place with her piece, playing Pearl, out of about 20 performances. Thank you for writing such wonderful Australian drama that our girls can learn through.
Kind regards, Kerryn” (Bick)

Where there’s life there’s hope I guess!

Owing to full-time study, part-time work, making visual art and parenting, this time round Cath is just going to refer you all to her wonderful website

This is less a news avenue, more a glimpse into a wild, free, quirky mind. I can recommend it!

Verity, for 7-ON