Blog 6 The Canberra Gigolo

Phil Setren’s play ‘Pretext’ from 24:7 Festival 2013 is playing at the You Are Here Festival in Canberra, Australia.
This blog are some daily observations from a Festival similar to 24:7 in another part of the world.


A sit-com spoof called “Filth’ has been commissioned by You Are Here for a script in hand reading mid-way through the Festival.  Its called ‘Filth’ and is a police satire by a writer named Tobias Manderson Galvin who runs MK new writing theatre in Melbourne.
Well, Tobias actually has 5 names with different hyphen’s between them, and has certainly arrived as writer in residence with a suitcase full of trendy outfits and hair styles.  He is terrific at publicity, and always seems to be in a photo shoot or creating a poster.
We are introduced in a coffee meeting by the artistic staff,  as the  collaborator on his commission pulled out last minute. As I have written police procedural’s, Nick the Artistic Director thinks we may be a match.
I try to do the right thing, and send him writing samples of my underworld drama ‘Red Light Soho’ ( 24/7 reading in 2012) which has some similarities in setting.  Two days pass and he hasn’t read a word.  We have the odd fleeting ideas discussion. I  offer dramaturgical support as I can tell he’s a ‘last minute’ marathon writer, and co-writing scenes will be impossible in the middle of the night.  Also, he’s clearly a lothario on a pulling mission, and I need my sleep!  Nick from You Are Here makes it clear that I am under no formal obligation, and the You Are Here staff is simply throwing Tobias a ‘lifeline’ in the form of another writer to help him out.
He is collecting bits and pieces, and I guess he’ll probably stay up all night the eve before and pull the final script together.  A lovely girl turns up two nights prior to his reading outside the theatre hub space while we are talking about his plot possibilities.  She looks at Tobias with loving eyes and says ” I liked what you read to me this morning when we woke up.”  His eyes look at her with boyish charm, and he flits off after a few more words to another group of attractive girls.  She acts like she is ok with his lack of attention, when she was hoping he would treat this evening’s shows like a date and want to sit with her.  Luckily I have some chocolate in my bag, which we devour together.
The You Are Here Festival has secured a store front space specifically for Tobias and the development of his police story.  The original idea was that he would invite passer’s by’ from Canberra into the space and integrate their stories into the plot.  The space they have secured him is named ‘The Station’ and is across the street from an immigration office and a large postal centre.  I stop by both places in ‘research’ on the way to our meeting at the main Hub space to tell him about the atmospheres.
To my surprise, he has rejected this storefront space to the You Are Here staff, and has insisted his ‘police office’ be changed to the main Hub space, as he feels it will have more footfall.  I quietly wonder about this.  If a theatre company has gone to great lengths to give a writer their own theatre space, can the writer really reject that space upon arrival at a Festival?  The administrative staff seem only mildly irritated and ever flexible, and adjust to his artistic needs, which seem a particular  challenge to the Hub space designer.  He is occupying a section of gallery space she was hoping to use for visual artists.  When he says he wants walls built in his police office corner, a line seems to be drawn and he is provided partitions instead.
And with 48 hours to go, he still doesn’t have an opening scene.
This feels like commissioning madness.  In the UK when a company commissions a writer or a devising process, they usually have a clear certainty that the work will be delivered in a presentable form.  This approach seems to be giving Tobias creative freedom, and largely depending on his past success as a playwright  that he will deliver a script worth a public reading.
The night before, the lovely producer Sarah Kaur asks me for any insights on his ‘process.’   I try to be positive.   I say, ” if he can just write an opening scene and a first inciting event, even if he changes it later he could get out of the starting gate as a writer.’  She agrees but is cautious about her approach with him.  I gently joke… ‘ is he really collecting Canberra characters for scenes, or just collecting girlfriends.’  She replies with humour, “.. well, he’s already got a few of those on the go.’
The day of the public reading of ‘Filth’ arrives.  I turn up as arranged to read it with him to give feedback in the afternoon.  He asks if we can do it in 40 minutes as he’s furiously writing through hazy all-night exhaustion.  I sit across the hub space with my own writing, watching him in the distance tell even his budding romances that he is busy writing and he’ll speak to them later,  at the harem.  The Debbie Harry song “Call Me’” from the film about the Gigolo comes on the radio, and I imagine it distorted as he spills coffee all over his pink neon socks… trying to write while he napkins the drip out of his shiny black Doctor Martins boots.
We read the script.  Some nice ideas.  Loads of over-written digressions and repeats in the scenes making it too long a script.  His  ideas are clouded by his all night binge writing, and I think our reading hot off his lap-top is the first time he has noticed just how much he is repeating himself.
There is subversive wit, and an evil send-up quality about Australian police policy in places, and I hope he can see the meat he has here and not drown it in the gravy.
I don’t over-state the point that he needs to cut it down, as he knows it and gets busy. He seems in ‘the zone’ at last, ignoring his phones and assorted gadgets with 3 hours remaining. I disappear till ten minutes before the presentation.
When I arrive back at the venue for the reading, he and his actors are all in hip 70′s suits, and he is fashion fopping around.  He greets me with , ” Phil, I wish you were here 20 minutes ago.  I decided I wanted you to read the chief of police, but we’re just going to double it.’  I think to myself, glad I went across town to that poetry reading.  I don’t have the clothes, tattoos or the pony tail to sit on stage with this cool a crowd, and this is a reading I have got to hear.  A smallish audience assembles, and the sweet girl from the other evening sits near me with a few other female groupies, all in anticipation of the words that will pour from the waiting lips of their Amadeus.
The reading does make me laugh in places, and loses its way in others. Crowd pleasing characters.. one called Koala-lady who mans a sex chat line from the Canberra police station, get the laughs and lifts the story from the incoherent bits.  I was really hoping to hear the ending, but ‘Filth’ started so late waiting for a vip, that the production manager had to gently get the tech-director to wrap the reading up, for fear of the entire evenings schedule running behind due to a show running over.
Is it wise of You Are Here to commission this way?  I suppose we’ll only know if he continues on ‘Filth- the sitcom.’  Artistic Director Nick Delatovic refers to productions as ‘outcomes’ rather than calling them performances, and his artist development ethic makes it impossible to fail.
Tobias Manderson Galvin is here for the entire Festival as well, and we have more laughs and interesting talks now that the pressure is off.  And other writers joke with him openly about his wild ways, including the ‘Tobias swoop’.  Thats when he makes a long, swooping curving jog towards any passing girl who catches his interest.
His long list of writing credits and awards include a production that became a tabloid expose and did terrific sales in Melbourne because of it.
And I wonder if I have met a writer here that is ‘the playwright as aspiring commercial artist.’
Would it be right for me to think critically about someone who runs their practice this way, just because I don’t?
When he and his writer colleague Mark leave my digs on their final night in Canberra after laughing till 5 am eating rasberry m and m’s, I realize that a Festival can be a mirror for a writer.
The kinds of writers you may meet can be  all different sides of our writer selves.  The wild writer…. the depressed, heavy writer…. the earnest, lyrical writer.   I think about the sides of myself as a writer,  Maybe I need a bit more seasoning this way or that way with scripts that I am working on? I can’t work the way he does, but maybe I have been gifted this chance to see his process from the inside this way?
 The fairground in my mind is benefiting from all of this range.