06. 05. 2019
A long story
By Emily Steel
I meant to post updates on the development of Euphoria as we went along, after I wrote the first draft, after the creative development in November, and after the public reading in March. But I didn’t do it – because I was worn out, because my head was full of the play itself, because writing for a blog is somehow much more anxiety-inducing than writing a script. So here, very late, long overdue, are some words about all of those things. On the bright side, writing this in May 2019, I can look back and see how Euphoria got to where it is now – if I’d written the updates earlier, I wouldn’t have had much of a clue where we were going!
The first draft – August 2018
To go from a blank page to a first draft, I have to give myself permission to, essentially, write a load of rubbish. In my experience, about 90% of the time, the first draft bears little resemblance to the final play. But I need to start somewhere or I won’t start at all. The first draft is about throwing words and scenes and characters onto the page – after I’ve done that, I can start figuring out what to cut and what to keep.
I’ve known since the beginning of the project that Euphoria needed to be a play for two actors because of the constraints of touring, but for the first draft I ignored that, and wrote as if I had all the actors in the world, playing all the characters I could think of. I set scenes inside an acute mental health ward, and indulged some stereotypes about people with mental illness. I created two main characters who lived hundreds of kilometres apart and whose stories didn’t intersect with each other’s at all until they met in the final scene. The script didn’t work. But then, it wasn’t meant to work. It was meant to give me something to work from.
And it did. Out of the first draft came two main characters: Meg, a teacher, and Ethan, who has just left high school and is having some trouble dealing with life. A number of secondary characters came too – among them Clive, the school principal, and Carla, who runs the IGA – who more or less just arrived in my head, started talking, and made me like them so much I had to keep them. (This is the part where the writer starts sounding a bit loopy – yes, I know I invented them, and yes, I know I made up all the words. Don’t even get me started on how sad I feel for my characters when they are in pain – whilst knowing full well that every ounce of pain they feel is inflicted by me. And that they don’t actually exist.)
The second draft and creative development – November 2018
The second draft was a bit of a tough one. I had to reduce the number of actors the play needed, and I wanted especially to change Ethan’s story and character development – to make him less stereotypical and his story less extreme. I also needed to link Meg’s story with Ethan’s, and after weeks of trying, I couldn’t, for the life of me, make that work.
So I changed the play. I threw Ethan out completely. I gave some of his qualities, and some of his experiences, to Nate, Meg’s husband. Instead of writing in dialogue, I rewrote Euphoria as monologues delivered, alternately, by Meg and Nate, and the story skipped back and forth through time from the moment they met to the present day.
This was the script I took into the creative development week with Nescha Jelk (director), Eliza Lovell, James Smith and Rory Walker (actors), and Alison Howard (creative producer).
Creative developments are brilliant. After sitting in a small room by myself trying to nut out an entire play, I get to sit in a bigger room with some very nice people who read the script aloud for me, point out all the problems with it, and try to help me fix them.
As a result of the creative development – having read through both first and second drafts – Ethan made a comeback (but now lived in the same town as Meg), I found a way to write scenes as dialogue narrated by one or other of the main characters, Meg and Ethan (which meant I could have lots of characters with only two actors), we found a new way to frame the entire story (with Meg trying to set up a new local festival), we came up with exciting ideas for staging, and we articulated the question at the centre of the play, which was “What responsibility do we have to each other?”
Some of the other creatives in the room sent through some comments afterwards:
Nescha Jelk – “We got to hear about Emily’s experiences travelling through regional SA towns like Ceduna, Whyalla and Streaky Bay. She shared with us the conversations she had with community members in these areas over cups of tea, staff and consumers that she met and spoke with at regional mental health units. All of these stories and conversations painted a clear picture for us of the highs and lows of living in a regional town; that the best and worst thing is that everybody knows your business.”
Eliza Lovell – “The creative team shared stories and thoughts in regards to our own connection to mental health – in relation to ourselves, family and friends… Thanks to all who offered their stories for research and to CASA for initiating the conversations… We all need to share, talk and listen… especially listen – as we are never alone…”
The third draft and public reading – March 2019
I came out of the creative development with a good idea of the changes I needed to make for the third draft to work. The script had to make a big leap to become what it needed to become, and there was a huge amount of new text I needed to write. Naturally I got flu and missed the initial deadline, but battled slowly on and pulled it together in time for the public reading.
The third draft starts in a completely different place for Meg, trying to set up a new festival in a country town. Ethan, who is now Meg’s ex-student, starts in exactly the same place as in draft one, but he has a very different journey and finishes in a very different place. Meg and Ethan’s stories zigzag through each other, and show us the same town from two different perspectives.
We had a weekend’s worth of rehearsal with the new draft before the public reading. Nescha, Alison and I were joined by Ashton Malcolm, playing Meg, and James Smith, playing Ethan. After hearing the new draft aloud, I made more cuts and tweaks to the text, and Nescha and the actors found the rhythms of the characters and the scenes, finding the best way to tell the story with no set, no props, no lighting or sound effects, just two people on stage.
The public reading was held at Holden Street Theatres in Adelaide. It went very well and – especially considering it was the Sunday of Womad weekend – we had quite a lot of people there. People with lived experience of mental illness, mental health workers, the Mental Health Commissioner, people who lived in country towns, people from the Adelaide theatre community.
The feedback afterwards was very helpful indeed. The story worked. People related to the characters. The picture of a South Australian country town felt authentic (which was a huge relief, because I’m from the other side of the world). There were concerns about the impact of the ending, which some thought could be triggering for audience members. One person told me afterwards that she wanted the ending to celebrate Meg more, because Meg is actually doing very well – she’s successful in her job, she has a good relationship, and most of the time she manages her illness.
I think the concerns were spot on. Sometimes it’s not until I hear a reading of the script that I can see it clearly – see what’s in it and see what’s missing from it. There are changes to make in the next (hopefully final) draft, but they will be small changes in comparison to the huge leaps between previous drafts – enhancing some elements of the story, refining some of the language, altering scenes here and there, fixing the ending.
I’ve got that to do before we go into rehearsal in September, so if you don’t hear from me…