By Joanna Erskine
A couple of months ago, I was asked to write something for the Fresh Ink blog. I was told it should be something about inspiration and creativity, and it should be personal. I said “Yes” straight away. After some thought I decided that I wanted to write about my experience with a play I had written years ago, inspired by but not directly about, the death of my mother from a rare form of ovarian cancer, 7 years ago.
However, as time ticked over, I found myself sending apology emails to Fresh Ink. Something had come up that would mean I needed more time, although I didn’t know how long. As time would have it, it was a three-month wait for this post. In that short time my Dad was diagnosed with, and passed away from, two Grade 4 brain tumours.
I wanted to write about what creativity means to me, and it’s in times such as these that I think it means the most. We all have a reason to write. We might love writing, but there’s got to be a reason as to why we do it. For a long time I didn’t know why I wrote until I stepped back and looked at my repertoire. It was all about things I hadn’t experienced. As writers, we have a tremendous opportunity to digest life and make sense of it through art. The old cliché of getting to walk around in other people’s shoes, with no consequences. It’s a thrill and it helps us make sense of this sometimes bizarre world we live in. That’s why I wrote many of my plays – K.I.J.E., Bye Bye Baby, Little Mouse – I didn’t understand something, so I wrote to understand it.
But sometimes inspiration isn’t so deliberate. Sometimes it jumps up and catches you by surprise. Sometimes your creativity operates for a reason, even if you are unaware of it until it’s done its magic.
I’d just turned twenty, when after a five and a half year battle with cancer, my beloved Mum passed away. I was devastated. Like many in my family I had convinced myself she was invincible, as she had fought with such strength and positivity the whole way through. At the time I was a university student, active in our Drama Society. I was busy learning my craft, directing my own plays year after year, and cutting my teeth before graduating into the wider industry. It came time to pitch for our annual new play season, and I wondered what I could possibly write about this year. The idea of telling my own story seemed too fresh and raw. I wasn’t sure I wanted to put it on stage just yet, if ever. Instead I wrote the play Leave A Message, about a young guy called Will who was killed in a motorbike accident. His story was told through a series of flashbacks and present memories, by his sister, best friend, ex-girlfriend, and Will himself. Some of my closest friends and now established actors embarked on the journey with me in these roles –Geraldine Hakewill, James Mackay, Eloise Snape and Anthony Slater.
As the director of the play, I suppose I had removed myself from the story and was so preoccupied with realising it on stage that I never stopped to think about what I’d written. It wasn’t until the lights dimmed on opening night after our first performance that I stopped to contemplate. There was complete silence from the audience. Usual fears kick in. “They hate it.” “I’m a failure.” “Where is the nearest bucket?” Yet, after about 10 agonising seconds of silence, there came a noise. Sniffing. From all around me. The audience was in tears. Slowly came the applause, strong and humbling. Friends told me they had never seen their boyfriend cry before. One audience member who had suffered recent heartache couldn’t physically leave their seat. Another knew someone in a similar accident, and sat there mute, eyes glazed over. I felt equal amounts of apologetic sympathy and inner excitement. My words had power in their pain and a profound impact on an audience. They had also told the audience my story.
On stage, clear for all to see, was my grieving process in all its forms. I’d been very wrong in thinking that just because I’d imagined a fictional situation, that it wasn’t about me. I was there, my family was there, my mother was there in that play. It had been a cathartic experience and I hadn’t even noticed. Through writing the play, I understood myself more. I had attempted to make sense of my experience, my emotions, my heartache, my reaction against moving forward with my life. It wasn’t by any means a brilliant play, but it remains the seminal experience in my playwriting career.
And now, through a very different process, as a 27-year old woman I have watched my brilliant, strong, fit-as-a-fiddle father succumb to a vicious illness. I have, with my family around me, been on the brink of life and death with another human being. I have been truly thankful for the time I had with him, the moments he gave us with the strength he had left, and the memories I will forever hold close. And all the while, through the whole thing, friends and family have in their quiet voices smiling said, “Well, there’ll be a play in this, Jo.” And I know there will be. It’s been forming in my head as soon as the process began. It’s my creativity again, letting me know that it will help me deal with anything that comes my way. It might not be me or my Dad or my family onstage, but it will be our story.
And it’s times like these that I feel so lucky I write.
PlayWriting Australia and Fresh Ink are bringing together a panel of leading practitioners to talk about life, death and the playwright’s approach to both for a special roundtable event this Friday at atyp. More details, here.