“If you’re going to write about death, you’re really writing about life.”

It’s potentially the broadest topic ever: Life, Death and Everything in Between.

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But at atyp, in a recent Fresh Ink/PlayWriting Australia event, playwrights Jane Bodie, Shôn Dale-Jones, Rita Kalnejais, Phil Spencer and moderator Chris Mead (Artistic Director of PlayWriting Australia) tackled how to take those very deeply personal events and make them into great theatre.

Admittedly I am not a playwright and even if my therapist or I happen to uncover 10 or 20 years from now that I have been secretly a repressed playwright for all this time, I can assure you, I’ll still not be a very good one.

I especially know that this is not the calling for me by the simple fact that I consistently misspell “Playwriting” with a “gh” in “writing”. I’ve done it three times already so it’s for the best really that I steer clear.

It’s probably why I am so fascinated by the writing process though and the unique craft employed to create such spellbinding work, with full knowledge that it is not the way in which I see the world.

Jane Bodie, head of playwriting at NIDA and the writer of Griffin Theatre Company’s This Year’s Ashes was asked why choose theatre over any other art form to express grief or investigate death and sadness. She answered that she thought in theatre terms and so it was only natural that it would be within this space that she chose to investigate it.

Shôn, currently performing Story of a Rabbit at the Opera House, concurred, stating that in trying to convey grief, the collective experience that is theatre offered the perfect environment. Having seen his show earlier in the week, it’s easy to see what he means. It is a show that is filled with generosity and multiple shared experiences, shaping grief and death for an audience and making it all much easier to digest, even providing a little hope.

What everyone agreed on was that it was important to bring the funny.

That’s not to say that there isn’t space for drama, but what the writers all specialized in was using these situations, often coming straight from their lives, to make people laugh.

Rita Kalnejais, whose beautiful piece Babyteeth is on at Belvoir in 2012, said that it was so nice to laugh in a big group of people and that the experience of theatre is about “pleasure and people coming together”. For Jane also, humor causes a release for an audience from such grief, boldly declaring early on in the discussion the romantic comedy be seen as high art.

“Time loses meaning when you’re in a relationship with death”

Common themes emerged across the writers’ semi-autobiographical pieces about grief and dying: order perching on the edge of chaos; loving when you have nothing to lose; the complexities of time and how in moments of grief and death and dying things speed up, slow down and become so personal that everyone’s memory is different. The biggest point to make was that all the writers present these potentially somber topics with hope, not despair.

“To grieve demonstrates great love” said Jane Bodie and to make people feel this love was Jane’s advice to playwrights, based on her experience of writing her father’s death as part of her recent work. Rita similarly discussed her exploration of the freedom and joy that could come at this mysterious point on the brink of life and death in Babyteeth.

“If you’re going to write about death, you’re really writing about life”

Grief though is of course an immensely personal thing. I’ve always thought that at any given moment you on some level have a future projection of the people and relationships in your life that you factor into all of your plans. Why I think grief affects us so profoundly is that it immediately shatters these projections and from that moment on, a comfortable assessment of our entire future must be re-evaluated, hence the profound loss. But how to make this personal experience accessible for others, and importantly valuable or useful?

For Shôn, it’s important to know when times call for the reality and facts of a situation or experience and when an imaginative world is allowed to take over. Luis Bunuel wrote that “fantasy and reality are equally personal and equally felt, so their confusion is only of relative importance” and the panel agreed that it’s not the goal of great art to simply show us an idea, but to feel it. In taking these personal stories and using them as a way to make people laugh, cry but give hope, something we all know to be true is illuminated in a shared positive experience.

“Sometimes in a moment close to death, people can be living so completely.”

Phil, currently Co-Artistic Director of, and performing in The Horse’s Mouth festival of autobiographical writing at the Old Fitzroy, mentioned the feminist proverb that the personal is always political. Shôn Dale Jones also stressed theatre as the beginning of a public forum where something is presented for a purpose and can from then on be a point of discussion. Both work with their own stories but ensure that they are entirely theatrical. Phil works with cakes and dramaturgs and Shôn uses the character Hugh Hughes in whose imaginative world everything is ‘brilliant’. For both, this was a way that their autobiographies were able to emotionally affect people in the realm of the fictional with a powerful outcome.

It’s safe to say that it was never the goal of really answering all the big questions surrounding this discussion. The only human panel who could come close to doing that would involve 8 more people at the table, one of whom would be a prophet, all of whom would inspire a Dan Brown novel or two.

But there was a beautiful sense that for all, the immediacy and bonding nature of theatre was prime for starting a public discussion and contemplation of these big questions in a really positive and often funny way.

Rita may have summed it up best when she mentioned that the closer we come to death, the closer it brings us to life.

And I would have to agree.


Jennifer completed a Bachelor of Creative Arts in 2008 at the University of Wollonong. Since graduating, Jennifer has worked as a singer, performer/deviser, producer and dramaturg. In 2011, she devised and performed The All You Can Stand Buffet for the Underbelly Arts Festival on Cockatoo Island. She also performed another devised work Anyone Can Edit…Phaedra in the Under the Radar programme as part of Brisbane Festival and Crack Theatre Festival as part of This Is Not Art, Newcastle. As a dramaturg Jennifer has developed How It Is Or As You Like It as part of the Ashfield Council Artist in Residency Programme, The Bull for the Oxford Playhouse and the short work I Think the Interview Went Well, Mum for the New Theatre, all pieces written by Van Badham. She has also developed new work as part of the Merrigong Theatre Company Independent Artist’s Programme and the Shopfront Summer YAK Residency.

In 2008 Jennifer worked for the Short and Sweet Festival; in 2010 she produced and assistant directed two pieces for the Sydney Fringe Festival, one of which won ‘Best of the Fest’, and this year has worked as an associate producer for Arts Radar, as the Literary Assistant at Belvoir and interned on the 2011 National Play Festival. She currently works as a script assessor for PlayWriting Australia and is assisting in preparations for the 2012 National Play Festival.

Jennifer will be blogging from this year’s Fresh Ink National Studio, led by Caleb Lewis, Peta Murray and Ross Mueller.

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Categories: About Fresh Ink, Autobiography/Biography, Forum, Memory, New Writing


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2 Comments on ““If you’re going to write about death, you’re really writing about life.””

  1. December 6, 2011 at 8:07 am #

    I’ve worked with dying and grieving people my whole career. As a nurse, counsellor, educator and palliative care services manager, I realised that the arts were a powerful medium for getting the community talking. I’ve written two books for kids on death “Jelly Bean’s Secret” for primary kids and “Sometimes Life Sucks” for teenagers. I collaborated with renouned Australian actor and playwrite Alan Hopgood on two plays, “Four Funerals in One Day” about death and legacy which has toured extensively throughout the country and our new play “The Empty Chair” exploring grief and dementia which was launched in Melbourne two weeks ago. My role as “Deathtalker” has seen me on TV and the radio, talking about life and death issues……thank goodness other are finally picking up the baton and joining me in getting communities engaged in conversations. Would love to connect. Please get onto me via my website http://www.deathtalker.com Warm regards, Molly Carlile

    • December 10, 2011 at 8:27 am #

      Thanks,Molly. Your book was mentioned at our Studio this week. We will be in touch shortly.

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