On Skimming Stones: Memories of ‘Home’ and 25 Down
“The purpose of art…”
Oh dear. I’ve started with that old chestnut. Please don’t click away! This won’t be a dry essay, I promise. One little quote, and we’re done.
“The purpose of art,” Viktor Shklovsky wrote in 1917, “is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived, and not as they are known. […] Art exists so that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” Russian Formalism may not be in vogue much these days, but for a playwright attempting to write about “home”, a stony stone isn’t a bad place to start.
Home, of course, is an ephemeral place. What used to look familiar can suddenly grow strange; what once seemed eternal can disappear overnight. Yet I suspect those of us who call Brisbane home are more attuned to this quality than most. Ours is a city that constantly forgets itself. From the true origins of the inner-city Boundary streets, to the Deen Brothers’ infamous wrecking ball; from the rollercoaster at Tops in the Myer Centre to that brief period in the 90s when South Bank had a canal running through it. Remember the old Greater Union building on Albert St? When Twister screened there in 1996, they installed a cyclone machine in the foyer. It felt important for some reason to tell you that. Remember “Amazons” in Jindalee? Or the old Suncorp theatre next to King George Square? What about the former David Jones building where Queens Plaza is now, where old men in bowties would work the elevators for you? I already sound 102 saying all of this, but the late 1990s may as well have been 102 years ago.
To look too closely at Brisbane can often feel like inspecting a photocopy of a photocopy: traces of the past exist, whole memories you’re certain took place, but can no longer point to with certainty. I’m sure the Inner City Bypass was a sporting field once. That bank over there was a skating rink, no? That office a doll hospital. And on that corner – where the shiny new apartment building stands – was a café where I first came out as gay, aged 21, to a kind Norwegian exchange student. (I guess you had to be there).
It’s a running gag in my family that I remember everything, right down to specific years. And yet often I’ll look at an old photograph and be astounded by the details I’ve forgotten. We did used to have yellow wallpaper. I did used to wear jeans and sneakers together. There did used to be an indoor garden where the pantry is now. If home is memory, and memory is unreliable, then what is left for a writer to put into words?
Lewis Treston’s charming article about writing Reagan Kelly took me back to a very specific writing memory of my own: a small apartment in Clapham Junction, London, in the summer of 2007. At the time I was working at the Daily Telegraph newspaper, in a complaints department that was euphemistically called “Reader Relations”. It was the best day job I ever had. From 9-5 I would answer letters and emails about mistakes in the crosswords, leaving my evenings free to write. In the space of one week I had written the first four scenes of what would eventually become my first major play, 25 Down, yet something was blocking me from developing the scenes further. I had a general sense of the plot and the themes, as well as a set of characters, but they were floating around aimlessly, set nowhere in particular. To truly ground this story, I had to think much more deeply about the world of the play, which meant thinking more deeply about my own world: the people and the places that had shaped who I was. I had to set the play in Brisbane.
And so, throughout 2007 I began developing those scenes further within a Brisbane context. This led me to some interesting surprises. I recall a group of actors in an East London workshop learning with horror that homosexuality had only been decriminalised in Queensland in 1991. And I remember scenes set at Sporties and the Wickham getting big laughs from the audience during the play’s staged reading at the Royal Court Theatre. In Brisbane we think nothing of seeing plays set in London or New York, but to see the reverse happen was oddly exciting. A “home” I’d thought was so specific now felt more universal than I’d realised.
25 Down premiered on 8 June, 2009, at Queensland Theatre’s Bille Brown Studio (itself now a completely different venue since extensive renovations last year). Like all playwrights, I had been a nervous wreck for months leading up to Opening Night, and was making changes to the script right up to the final preview. To my complete relief and delight, I was blessed with an amazing director, cast, and crew, and the show was a success: good reviews, strong audiences, even awards. Somehow, miraculously, I had survived. It was the biggest event of my life up until that point, and I had poured everything into it – but then, just like that, it was over.
As Lewis’s article (quite fairly) observes, 25 Down has now faded into memory, which is the lot of most playwrights in this country, aside from a lucky few. But to learn that the play had an impact on Lewis – a playwright a generation below me – and better yet, had stayed with him, moved me more than I can say. And suddenly I was reminded of all the plays that had moved me in my youth, in venues and in productions all over Brisbane that have also been largely forgotten, except for those of us who were there.
I wrote earlier that home is memory, and memory unreliable, but perhaps this only applies to facts and figures. In terms of emotion, memory is real. It is felt in the body, it is experienced, it is vividly recalled, and it affects how we live in the present day. Someone writes a play and it lives on in me; I write a play and it lives on in someone else. We’re all of us grasping towards that ephemeral thing, trying to capture it before it disappears.
I think, instinctively, all playwrights understand this, which is why we write for the artform that we do. A photograph, a film, a book: these are all tangible objects, frozen in time. But “home”, a memory, a play from long ago: these things can never be seen. Only felt.
As for that Twister machine at Greater Union – you’ll just have to trust me on that one.
Dr Richard Jordan
Richard Jordan is an award-winning playwright from Brisbane. His plays have garnered several awards and honours, including the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award (25 Down, 2009), the Lord Mayor’s Award for Best New Australian Work (Machina, 2015), three Matilda awards (2009; 2015), and a Creative Fellowship at the MacDowell Colony, New Hampshire (2013). He currently lives in Armidale, NSW where he lectures in Theatre Studies at the University of New England.
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