Hi David. Thank you for asking me to answer this question. Did you know we’ve been friends for almost 5 years now? Yeah. We met at playwriting camp in December 2010 and now it is now 2016, so let that tell us whatever we need to know about Friendship.
A little while ago I approached you with a problem, which was that I was totally burnt out as a playwright and never wanted to write again. I couldn’t give a single shit about theatre, recognised my place in the ecology of the Australian stage (stinky amoeba) and was starting to question why I had entered into such a flippant and unreliable industry as my life’s pursuit.
You had a solution to these issues, which was: take a break from theatre and write something else. Here are a series of essays you should write, Jess. Here are all the topics, now go nuts. One of the topics is “My Friend David is Frantically Trying to ‘Make It’, This Is What He Should Do” and so it’s time to answer that for you right now.
HURL YOUR BODY INTO A LARGE BODY OF WATER EVERY DAY WITHOUT FAIL
This is the first and most essential act you can perform and every other tip is secondary at best.
“But Jessica,” I hear you ask, “what if I have curly hair that doesn’t like to be wet and washed every day? Sometimes curly hair needs to regenerate oils, rather than being brutalised with salt or chlorine every day! How do I do a daily swim and ALSO look after my hair?”
The answer is to prioritise body of water over happy hair. Also, no one cares what you look like; they care about the sparkle in your eye that comes with interacting with big ass bodies of water that make you feel small, strong and part of something bigger than yourself.
Because: YOU ARE SMALL AND TINY AND DON’T MATTER
One of my favourite phrases of yours is “we will all be forgotten fifty years after we’re dead.”
This attitude took me a little while to reconcile, particularly because I am a fan of old dead poets whose words are still dolefully recited in the present day; poets who inspire nerdy conferences where people like me pick apart semantic choices by day, then drink whiskey and bump uglies by night. If it weren’t for these old unforgotten dead writers, I’d have not one line of verse to whisper huskily into a hottie’s ear as daybreak dawns over their floor-bed.
But of course, these writers, the ones who history remembers, are the exception to a rule. They are the rose petals that floated to the top while the heavier scum sunk and moulded on the base of the bathtub we call “literary history.”
I bet Shakespeare had heaps of colleagues who were amoebas like us, watching his stratospheric rise to fame, all “why am I not making it while this guy is raking in the shekels and the sheilas,” but we never heard about those guys because THEY HAVE BEEN FORGOTTEN, ARE SMALL AND TINY, AND DO NOT MATTER.
You know what though? Maybe they had other things going on. Good at gardening, generous lovers, knew how to cook an artichoke a la Romana. Those things have been forgotten, too.
There’s that great Hallmark quote along the lines of “people forget what you do, but they never forget how you made them feel.”
Wrong. They forget that too. Everything is forgettable, unless you’re Shakespeare. And there was only one Shakespeare. So stop worrying about that and get back to your gardening.
BUT THE HUMAN URGE TO STRAIN AND REACH FURTHER IS ALWAYS ALWAYS THERE
Production is not just the act of being human – the husky whisper of poesy in cool dawn-dew mornings – but it is a creative urge too. If you’re born with a generative streak that tells you to write and make and share, then you can’t ignore that urge. You just need to find a blend of routine and self-care and water-dipping that lets you get out of bed in the morning with minimal amount of existential pain.
This is where it becomes about the work you make, rather than the mechanics of making it. Are you making work that is meaningful to you whether you have it produced professionally or not?
(Caveat. Of course you want your work to be produced. It’s a reptilian urge that we try to shake loose but we can’t. Urge for production and reproduction is why we do things like learn new hobbies for people (such as following Auspol or listening to white dudes rap). These connections, these hints at being needed and important speak to the little part of us that resonates with the highest levels of Maslow’s Pyramid of needs, despite our best efforts to transcend it.)
If we focus too much on production as the arbiter of artistic fulfilment, our gaze moves away from the act of making art that matters, and instead lands on the vagaries of production engines: the politics within a theatre company, within government policy, within the arts world more generally.
All this said: it hurts when the world doesn’t say, “Jess Bellamy, you are a smart bitch and the world will benefit from your sassy words.” It’s easy to take it personally. I know that I have. What’s helped me with this feeling is the following analogy:
Every arts powerbroker in the world is essentially an overwhelmed tourist walking through the masses of people milling about the entrance to the Colosseum in Rome. These tourists don’t make eye contact with strangers, because those strangers are going to try to aggressively sell them a selfie stick, which NOBODY wants and NOBODY should ever buy. You’ve spent enough money on tourist shit. You barely had a budget to start with. Some dickhead called from a street gang called Bandito Brandis robbed you this morning.
After half a day in Rome, these hawkers get so intense that you stop making eye contact with these people. You look past them, or deflect their advances with a swift “NON”.
This is a shame for a few reasons: the first is that the selfie stick sellers tend to ruin street selling for the guys with African handicrafts and counterfeit Chanel wallets. We tend to ignore those guys too, because we assume everyone is as pushy, or their offering is as vapid.
It’s also a shame because maybe selfie sticks actually provide something beautiful and exciting to society. No longer do tourists have to try to make friends with other tourists or locals in order to cajole them into taking a photo of themselves and/or their lover. Instead, they stay self-contained, self-reliant and isolated. Which is ideal for the upcoming ecological apocalypse, where friendship and weakness will do nothing but slow you down.
Basically, to bring this analogy back, our power-brokers are being transformed into a washed out mess of cynicism that has been ripped down the middle and hangs in ragged pieces. They can’t look people in the eye, because they’re so tired of having to say no or be disappointed. They regret the fact that they might be missing out on the next great thing, but not enough to interact with every fucker who looks at them too long or with the wrong sort of gleam. Instead, their gaze tilts up at the sky for direction. They search for a creative bat signal to beam out and tell them about something important or beautiful. A new idea, an exciting voice, a rare perspective flashes out with such force that its shape in the sky is undeniable.
It’s too difficult to keep craning their necks upwards, so they tilt down to see which part of their city is the source of this light and sound. The potential for what might come out of this exploration is enough to risk re-entering the disappointing world.
Our job, therefore, is to flash our words at the sky until someone is so impressed by them that they want to look at us dead on and say “keep talking to me; I’m all ears, eyes, and pricked up goosebumps around you.”
Our job also is to ensure we are offering something much more exciting than a selfie-stick for sale, because there is no battery in that malarkey to beam anywhere even remotely close to the sky.
The challenge we face is having enough rocket fuel to beam up our signals for as long as we can, and to trudge along with enough water packed on our backs to stay healthy in all the right ways. Our job is to keep making, keep creating, and keep getting better, while recognising that sometimes the sky is very full and even very bright messages can be dulled by the camera-flash cacophony that surrounds us.
JUST HAVE YOUR LUNCH SORTED FOR THE DAY
When we were in Manila, I discussed some of my existential career woes with Max, who didn’t share them. He said “as long as I’ve got something to eat for lunch every day, then I feel like I’m doing OK.”
This was beautiful and inspiring and very true. We are ambitious people, and of course we want to push our way ahead, because we have important things to say. But sometimes, an eye on the long game occludes a healthy present. Can we find a healthy compromise that entails planning for the future alongside art-making as a constant reinvention, but also enjoy the sense of play, of the unknown, and of huge potential that is essential to our career?
I don’t know, but I do know that lunch is important. I also know that your voice is important and the world needs to hear it. I’m aware that you’ve been flashing your light at the sky for a long time, but I want to assure you that people are seeing it. It gets tiring, though. I understand very much.
I wish you more jet fuel, more salt water and a hearty lunch every day.
Good luck my friend. We’re all going to need it.
 It is ok to be given one by your sister-in-law’s sister after her trip to Korea, but that is the only exception. If it runs out of battery, then you should not buy a new battery.
 There will, however, still be poetry, so we can get our feels on there.
First: some context. I really love rap music. And I really love bushwalking.
My favourite way of bushwalking is listening to particular rap songs that I know really well and trying to get something new from the lyrics. I go bushwalking once a day to ensure I am a human being who doesn’t say mean things to people and who feels good about life. While walking, I like to have a really engaged brain and occasionally goosebumps of poignancy, so this is why I listen to rap music.
For example, Kanye’s song “Hey Mama”? It’s a sweet and simple tribute to his Mum raising him to be hard-working and ambitious. It’s a moment of sweetness and love. It’s a gorgeous song, and it’s set off with something of a vocal siren that sounds like the clearing of his throat in ascending pitch, followed by a “yow!” I remember seeing Kanye perform this live in Sydney fairly close to his mother’s death. The vocal siren was now a wail, the “yow” felt like a punch in the chest, a howl from a wounded creature. This song, a tribute to Donda West, probably written as a Mother’s Day gift for her, was now a new sort of tribute following her death. It’s always a goosebump moment as I look down at water bubbling over the stones that stack onto themselves in Merri Creek, the cold weaving between grooves, no part untouched.
Then there’s a lot about Drake’s new album that causes me to think, too. One of the tracks, Star 67, starts with the lyrics: “Brand new Beretta, can’t wait to let it go. Walk up in my label like: where the cheque tho?” And I think: has Drake ever done that? I don’t get that vibe from Drake. The vibe I get is an angry smart dude who overthinks things. If Drake did this, even just as a joke, did the record label think it was a joke? Or was it one of those Rich-People-Jokes where everyone less-rich is contractually obliged to laugh at the rich dude being a fuckwit but inside their heart is beating a little faster and they have a strain running through them of “he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that, you know. It’s manipulative.”
Don’t even get me started on the emotional rollercoaster of Jay Z’s “My President is Black”. This song is goosebump magnificence – “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk, Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run, Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly, now imma spread my wings, you can meet me in the sky.” But there is a bitter irony to images like that versus America in reality, especially with lines like “no more wars, no more Iraq, no more white lies, my President is black.” I guess this track makes me think about the universal fucked-uped-ness of having power. Everyone ends up doing bad things, even the good guys.
But we’re wasting time because today’s post is all about the main event: Nicki Minaj’s guest verse off the Kanye track Monster. I reckon this guest spot was a big part of my feminist awakening in my early 20s. Here’s a smart, potty-mouthed, unapologetic woman owning her achievements, her sexuality and her right to be confident. She strides into this song and flings Jay Z’s limp verse that preceded her onto its back. I don’t want to quote too much of it to you, I just want you to load up this song onto your phone and find a green spot with a river and listen to it in its entirety.
But let’s talk about Nicki’s vocal gymnastics. She can sing, she can growl, and she can do cutesy-voice. She plays with our conception of how women should speak and rap and she uses her voice as another character. For example, in baby voice: “so let me get this straight, right, I’m the rookie, but my features and my shows ten times your pay?” Something slow starts building. The baby voice starts fading and a growl comes in: “50k for a verse, no album out! Yeah my money’s so tall that my body’s gotta climb it.” For any woman who’s ever felt mansplained to or undermined by someone with less experience, this moment is transcendent.
I sometimes wonder at Nicki’s insistence on using her earning power as the justification for her success, but it makes sense too. Imagine how often she’s felt talked down to (“and if I’m fake I aint notice cos my money aint”) or like she’s just the sum of her physicality (“pink wig, big ass, give em whiplash. Think big, get cash, make em blink fast.”). Lyrics about her bank balance are a way of meeting the haters at face level, using an analogy base enough for them to understand. Fuck artistic integrity: I’ve got more money than you.
The end of the verse features her using this opportunity to ask Kanye and Amber Rose for a threesome at the end of the week, followed by a roar of “Now look at what you just saw, this is what you live for, ahhhhh, I’m a motherfucking monster”. In one short verse, she’s displaying unapologetic sexuality, taking credit for how good the song is (you came here for ME, not for Kanye or Jay Z) and she is soaring into the sky with a growl like a motherfucking plane on take-off. She is, all at once, loud, sexy and professional.
She is made of many parts. Barbie, boss bitch, and queen. I love you, Nicki.
Anyone who knows ANYTHING about me, knows that I am a BIG fan of a Good Dance Movie.
Hate action movies. Hate spy thrillers. Hate horror films. But a dance movie? I’m only human. Who am I to tell my spine not to arc in a shiver, or my skin to prick into goosebumps, when someone attempts a risky “throw this babe I’ve been flirting with into the air, catch her and then make out” manoeuvre like it’s not even slightly a big deal?
DANCE FILMS PRESENT LIFE AS HEIGHTENED AND SASSY AND I AM DOWN WITH THAT.
This is part of a larger realisation that came with watching a musical the other night. At one stage, I looked around the audience and realised EVERYONE IN THE AUDIENCE WAS SMILING.
EVERYONE WAS HAPPY.
This was so different to my usual experience of audiences, as a theatremaker myself, that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the feeling. It flowered a little jonquil inside me that continues to squeak out, “maybe it’s OK not to be your most gritty, political self all the time. Sometimes, you can make that tired lady ROFL, instead of making her cry down her shirt because the world is ending.” I guess in an ideal diverse art landscape, you have art that does both. The beauty of an artistic community is that everyone has their own type of art. I love shitty dance films, but could never write one. I’m glad there are people out there who can, though. I hope they’re happy.
But, I digress.
On Sunday night I watched Step Up: All In with my friend Skye. From the opening scene, it was clear this was going to be a movie full of feelings and spinal chills. The protagonist, Bland White Guy, or Blah-Blah for short, was having some serious communication problems with his dance crew. Blah-Blah’s perspective on a life pursuing the muse is “Easy come, easy go.” Don’t you hate him?
Blah-Blah’s crew don’t feel quite so blithely relaxed about their future in the competitive world of dance. They say “Wake up, man! When are you going to stop acting like everything’s OK?”
Because things are not OK, not even a little bit. The troupe has been doing it really tough since their last commercial gig 6 months ago, where they got $50,000 for a Nike spot.
I’M SORRY – WHAT?! I love that even the most creative Hollywood dance-film screenwriter couldn’t see beyond the confines of his own foie-gras-crusted money-brain to think about what sort of earnings most freelance artists could expect from a dance gig.
If there was a dance troupe out there earning $50,000 willy nilly for a gig, they actually wouldn’t exist by the end of this sentence, because the rest of us jobbing artists would have killed them and would be snacking on their marrow right now for some important survival protein.
But anyway: this dance troupe are PISSED and they’re leaving Blah-Blah in order to pursue much more lucrative lives in industries like Who-Cares and You Traitor.
A few important plot points happen in too-quick-succession for this gal, still dazed at the size of that Nike cheque. One of the plot points is that Blah-Blah opens up his deluxe laptop and googles “dance auditions Los Angeles”. One popular hit comes up:
THE VORTEX, WITH ALEXXA BRAVA
XX for USSR! Alexxa is a Russian lady with a penetrating stare and the most incredibly demonstrative arms. She’s a mixture of Caesar Flicker from The Hunger Games and that time Karl Stefanovic was drunk on The Today Show. She tells the internet about a dance competition in Las Vegas where the winning dance troupe wins a 3 year contract to perform at a particularly impressive and depressing casino!
This piques Blah-Blah’s interest, but he doesn’t have time to dwell on it. He has to move out of his apartment because he’s totally broke after that shittily-paid Nike gig. He wanders to another part of town and enters a dance school; it’s his friend Moose’s family’s business, run by an extremely well-preserved Russian couple who say things like “you will be sleeping here in the closet of storage!”
Funny ethnics! Learn American already!
Now that Blah-Blah has somewhere to store his protein powder, acai berries and oversized singlet tops, he busies himself on TROUPE GENESIS DUTIES. First he hits up Moose, whom Skye assures me is a big deal from previous Step Up films. They grab a green smoothie together and talk shop. Moose is all “I don’t know man, I have a lucrative career as an Engineer now. I don’t dance anymore!” and Blah is like “don’t you miss dance?”
HEY MOOSE: it’s OK to miss dance! It doesn’t mean you have to give up your engineering career! Don’t follow Blah’s advice! Look at his resting dumbface! You are the winner here! You earn a regular pay cheque and have a lovely girlfriend!
But here’s the thing about Lovely Girlfriend. This woman is so keen to support all of Moose’s ambitions that she’s like “if you want something, I want you to have it. Since when did I become THAT girl?” She refuses to be a boner-shrinking naysayer. She’ll regret that later. WHEN IN DOUBT, NAYSAY.
Moose decides he’s in. He makes an excuse to his “deadpan yet lacking any panache” avatar of Boss (key line: “my grandmother was a jail warden”) and he and Blah go scouting for a new troupe of dancers.
And it’s a great troupe they gather. Some twins who look like Alex from Everything is Illuminated. A Kiwi girl who’s an amazing burger-flipper. A Korean girl who has the most INCREDIBLE taste in street wear.
(Side note: all these woman are dressed comfortably ALL the time. It’s very empowering and I won’t shovel even a tiny bit of snark their way because of it.)
But there’s one particularly important new addition to the troupe: Fragile and Complicated Love Interest Gal. Let’s call her Dicky Knee, because she hurt her knee once and now she’s scared to dance hard like she used to.
There’s an immediate competitive frisson between Dicky Knee and Blah-Blah, because it wouldn’t be Hollywood without a potential romantic relationship being framed as a site of battle between warring parties, until the weaker party accedes to the stronger, goes limp in their mouth, a flattened jugular and a weak cry of “OK, fine, you win me, because humans are winnable, own-able, property”. That is true romance.
Dicky Knee is freed from her former place of employ, but not before her and Blah have a sexy dance battle, giving Moose a chance to roll his eyes and go “does it ALWAYS have to end up in a giant dance battle?”
This is the part of the movie where the inciting incident has dropped like a well-timed anvil, and it’s making my heart feel things. Everyone has left their jobs, where they receive actual wages, in order to invest hopes, dreams and savings into this dance crew. It makes me realise: goddamn, artists sacrifice so much to do a job that makes many souls clap their hands and sing and louder sing, and we’re expected to live off the gruel of creative fulfilment alone. The lack of any sort of financial stability, the need for a leap of faith into the unknown, the constant hungry look over one’s shoulder for the next gig, and when it doesn’t come, the beginning of a sideways glance to consider dropping this career you have studied for and volunteered for and interned for and sweat out iron and tears for, because it sometimes is just too bloody bloody brutal to handle. I am really scared for this dance troupe because they are fumbling through the dark towards the hope for a better future, and who knows if they will get there. They might, but then: what next? They never know. They never will know. Part of this life is living in the dark.
The new troupe come together and their name is LMNTRIX. No comment.
OK, wait. I will comment. I hate it. It’s terrible. But they don’t have the money for workshopping it any more than they already have. They’re dry out of the Nike $50k. Maybe if the troupe could afford a clever dramaturg to sound out some good team names, this travesty wouldn’t have occurred, but George Brandis has ensured that no more dramaturgs are left, they have had to take new jobs douching his asshole every ten minutes so he can perform his ongoing slashes to Australian artistic and intellectual life with maximum squeaky-clean efficiency.
Anyway, it’s time for Step Up 4 to haul itself to Vegas, where the competition takes place in a casino hosting Rod Stewart’s show! It’s also time for me to haul myself into a bath that I will not miss for anything, not even the greatest movie of all time, so Skye agrees to take notes on what I miss.
The hotel where all the performers are staying is tacky and flashy and Skye nicknames it Orgy Palace. She notes that LMNTRIX is competing against dance troupes named Divine Intervention, The Mob and Night Crimes in the final. These names are TERRIBLE and I love them.
There’s also this note about the love-hate frisson between Blah and Dicky: “he wanted her to do a cool big dance move, but she has an old knee injury. She says IT’S ABOUT THE LOVE OF BEING IN A CREW! NOT WINNING, SEAN!”
And this is how I find out Blah-Blah’s name is Sean.
Skye also notes: “The racial diversity and talk of family values makes me think of Fast and Furious. NOT AS GOOD THO”
Somewhere in the time I was gone, Sean’s old dance troupe come back and are all “Wuffuck, bro? You didn’t even give us a text to say “let’s try this one last hurrah? Who even are you?”
Some more complications happen from there too, including finding out that Alexxa Brava is HAVING AN AFFAIR with a dancer from the warring crew! This is terrible news, because it means the competition is rigged! She’s gonna look after her fuckboy over anybody else!
In a logic that I’m too recently steamed and bathed to really understand, Sean realises the only solution to this problem is to merge his old crew with LMNTRIX and make ONE CONGLOMERATE OF SUPER TROUPE. He does, and they’re great. They’re ready to perform. They’re ready to WIN this rigged contest.
Somewhere in the rule book there’s surely a cap on the number of dancers allowed in each troupe, right? Or is this another Hollywood thing? In AUSTRAYA, all the major theatre companies tell you that you’re best off writing a one-hander or maximum three-person play, because then a company might ACTUALLY BE ABLE TO AFFORD TO PUT ON YOUR PLAY WITHOUT LOSING MONEY. If this troupe wins Vortex, the casino will have to pay 30 dancers 3 years worth of wages, and I guess if George Brandis was more au fait with how things are done in Vegas, baby, a lot of decisions made in Australian art policy would be a little more inspiring right now.
As the most charismatic member of LMNTRIX, and because it is Opposite Day, Sean gets up to address the crowd. He calls his troupe “the best of dancers” and then he corrects himself and says, “the best of friends.” That’s a spinal shiver right there. He’s coming through for us, ole Sean.
This is the moment where I think about how electric the first table read of this screenplay would have been. To have been a fly on the wall…
So it’s hard to properly explain how incredible the final dance piece is, so I’ll give you some buzz words: CHAINS. TYRES. LEAPING. THROWING. CATCHING. CAPES. GOGGLES. STUPID HATS. It’s a veritable wonderland of visual stimulus.
Skye sums it up with the following quote: “STEAMPUNK: it might look ugly, but it’s sexy, OK.”
There’s a potent moment where Dicky looks Sean dead in the eye and is like “let’s do the move that I’ve been scared of all this time. You throw me in the air and catch me again, and I’m going to trust the shit out of you. Do it. DO IT.”
And he does it. And he catches her. AND THEN THEY MAKE OUT IN FRONT OF A WIND MACHINE.
We all cry with joy. Lights flash. A girl does a robot dance. The wind rips sexily through billowing hair and past artfully displayed abs. Everyone is so happy.
Do they win? I don’t remember. I was too busy feeling proud of this motley crew of desperate losers, all sharing the same unreasonable dream: to train hard to be good at something that gives people joy, to share this joy with the world, and to have some sort of respect, financial benefit and career trajectory from providing this service to other humans who want it, need it and deserve it.
Dream on, stupid little dancers. Dream on.
Yes, of course.
For years, I used to think that my grandparents had written their own nifty doorbell tune, trademarked as The Bellamy Doorbell. That’s what Nana told me. Her and Popsi had come up with a clever melody that went “doo doo doo doo. Doo doo doo doo.”
It was a timeless tune: it just felt doorbell-appropriate. “What clever grandparents,” I thought. “Coming up with a tune that good after retirement! I guess that’s where my creativity comes from!”
One day I mentioned this to my friend Caro, and sang The Bellamy Doorbell tune to her. She paused, laughed a bit, and went “Jess? Those are the bells for BIG BEN.”
Recently I discovered a car wash I love in Melbourne named Grand Wash Auto. I love it for these reasons:
- It’s in an isolated industrial area and is always deserted.
- There are many shoe outlets nearby.
- The name is genius.
- You get to vacuum your own car for as long and as passionately as you like, without judgement.
- You don’t have to speak to another human being even once.
Until the day I discovered Grand Wash Auto, I maintained a more rustic car-care regimen of “wait til it rains and the problem will go away, unless it’s bat piss, sticky from the figs that this bat is pilfering and noshing on illegally from your garden, in which case, you should just sell the car.”
After my first Grand Wash Auto experience, I waxed lyrical to another friend about the lyrical waxing job that this clever machine had done to my automobile.
“It’s such good technology!” I gushed. “They have this clever system where you drive your right wheel onto a conveyer belt and put the car in Neutral and then the conveyer belt pushes your car through the jungle of sprays, mops, wipers and dryers via a logic that only it can command! What sort of robot genius invented this? Grand Wash Auto should patent it, stat!”
My friend paused and put on the same face Caro did when she tore my dream of Bellamy Family Musical Genius to shreds. “You know that every car wash ever does that? It’s standard. Across the board.”
It took me a little while to work out a theme for this Would Jess Like It post. It’s not doorbells. It’s not cluelessness. It’s not “this is what happens when you don’t get a real job”.
The closest I can get is “discovery”. The world is bigger than we understand it to be, pretty much always. So it’s nice to surround ourselves by smart people who pull us through an unfamiliar haze of global machinery, scrub off showerings of fig-sticky confusion, and wax the big big world slightly clearer.
Speaking of “discovery”: the Wikipedia page for “car wash” is two hours of joy that you will never get back, because those two hours will be clutched lovingly to your chest forever more. Enjoy the discovery.
This is a piece I wrote for Penguin Plays Rough about a year and a half ago, performed in the State Library of NSW in a room that was 100% haunted by things.
I was inspired to look at the story again because last week was William Butler Yeats’s 149th birthday.
Happy birthday, Willie! Enjoy this story and please don’t sue, I have good intentions, I promise.
(this is a photo owned by Penguin Plays Rough and is of me reading the story and also inhabiting a fashion phase called ‘swiss cheese sleeve’)
THE TWO TYPES OF YEATSIANS
Hello! Are you a Yeatsian? If you know what a Yeatsian is; if it makes your eyes perk up all soft and gooey, then you are a Yeatsian!
And if you frown a bit at this, roll the word around your mouth for a familiar taste, and, nope, you do not taste anything you know – then you are not a Yeatsian.
But the main way to work out if you’re a Yeatsian is – have you forked out 2100 bucks to fly to Sligo to attend a Yeats International Summer School, which is 2 weeks of YEATS YEATS YEATS ALL THE YEATS up in your throat?
Then you are definitely a Yeatsian. And you will meet other Yeatsians. And something odd and electric will happen when you first shake their pale sun-deprived hands – there’ll be what we call a “Yeats buzz’ – because 2 very unique obsessive souls will have clicked, in a way that is not opportunistic, but genuine.
And this is different from when you’re met Irishmen in bars, and they’ve quoted Yeats at you in the same way you might unenthusiastically plop out a rote-learnt verse of “I Love A Sunburnt Country” – the sort of men who’ve learnt that a random Yeats quotation to an obsessive Yeatsian is mysterious bra-loosening catnip, while Dorothea McKellar just makes you a little misty-eyed AT BEST.
No, this is different. You are connecting because you share one big weird obsession. You are all the type of people who highlight unattributed Yeats references in Sydney Morning Herald News Review articles and say things like “do they even REALISE they are unknowingly quoting HIM”, and so you will latch onto anyone who is like you.
You will join forces at Yeats Summer School, and you will attend lecture after lecture together on William Butler Yeats, and his family, and his homeland, and then all will be well and good, all ‘fairies and goblins and clover and prancing’ until something changes.
Two camps will suddenly form in this huddled mass of nerds – 2 types of Yeatsians.
There’s Type 1 – fans of the idealistic youthful Yeats. Type 1 fans love Willie’s early poems. The love for country, for rural life, for folklore and myth as the key to Ireland’s cultural identity. And most of all, Type 1 fans love his crippling lack of sexual confidence.
We LOVE this shit. A Nobel Laureate who can’t speak to a hottie without nervous-vomming down the front of his cravat? How approachable! How accessible! How come he never considered that the cravat might not be the pussy-magnet he always assumed it was? Never mind!
Young Yeats wrote poems about love and loss and longing that were the 1890s over-share equivalent of that girl on your facebook who’s always ‘liking’ articles about the empowerment of late-life virginity.
A great example of this over-share is Yeats’ poem The Wild Swans at Coole, where Yeats is literally bitching out a gaggle of swans for all the boning they’re getting up to while he sits alone on the shore, watching his dreams of an heir evaporate into the bright Coole sky.
So that is Yeats Camp 1. I am Yeats Camp 1.
Yeats Camp 2 are the VISION peeps. What is a Vision peep? To tell you the truth, I only sort of know.
If you’re an expert on this, then I’m really sorry, but I am about to talk about A Vision with the sort of blithe overconfidence that comes from knowing the low low odds of there being a Type 1 OR Type 2 Yeatsian who is blog-literate enough to be reading this. So, let’s go.
From the 1910s, Yeats had started dancing to a new groove. He had been hanging regularly with a Kabbalah expert called Madame Blatavsky, and he liked the shiz this woman had to say.
He’d found a new bunch of friends in an occult group called The Order of the Golden Dawn, friends who thought his cape/cravat combo was a COOL look and not a weird look, and together they hung out at nighttimes talking spirituality and babes.
Their kind of spirituality was based around a bunch of triangles and Stars of Davids doing a bunch of things that made these guys’ brain and souls and gonads go WHOA, and so this was well and good.
Because: Yeats wasn’t even that sexually frustrated anymore. He’d found a lady to take his flower – just a couple of times – and with that rose well-plucked, he was ready to – you know –
So while he continued to write love-sick poems to his unattainable muse Maud Gonne, these poems were more of the “LOOK WHAT YOU’RE MISSING OUT ON” ilk, and less of the “Please please please touch it” variety.
This left a lot of space in his mind to put sex-trauma in the bottom drawer, and instead work on his wider spiritual journey. Part of that journey entailed asking himself questions like:
- How is life structured? Do we live and then die, or does something spookier happen?
- Is life one straight line, or is a turning, wobbling gyre, a concept that I think means: does life look like one of those slinkys that go downstairs by themselves, connected to a whole bunch of other slinkies, all of them going downstairs at the same time, connected to different parts of their slinky torsos?
- If the end of the world involves a rough beast, its hour come at last, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born – does he mean a massive tan-coloured hybrid of lion + elephant, a Day of Retribution Liophant – some sort of apocalyptic creature with emerald eyes and a long striped trunk – because that would be AMAZING amirite?
Yeats got to a stage of life where he was contemplating all of these big questions –
Would it have eyelashes, this beast?
Can you look it in the eye and survive?
How do I even pronounce ‘gyre’?
Yeats put all of these Qs and these As in a book called A Vision, to be forever cherished by the weirdo Type 2 Yeatsians out there.
And obviously, with questions like this taking over your waking and sleeping hours, there’s not a lot of room anymore for “where dips the rocky highland of Sleuth Wood in the lake, there lies a leafy island, where flapping herons wake the drowsy water rats”.
While that sort of poetry is pretty and dreamy and beautiful, it is quite easily trumped by “THINGS FALL APART. THE CENTRE CANNOT HOLD. MERE ANARCHY IS LOOSED UPON THE WORLD”.
And this is what brings us to this story’s dilemma.
It’s the 1917 wedding night of WB Yeats and Georgie Hyde Lees. Maybe their first time alone together. They’ve only been dating for a month. They’re in their private marital chamber, and Georgie’s got her copy of “The Celtic Twilight” clutched to her bosom.
“You are Diarmid and I am Grania! Let me free your love harp like Cathleen ni Houlihan freed the hills of Erin! We can roleplay Deirde and Naoise if you like, but I am not cool with blackface!”
And eyes brimming with hope – erotic hope – she waits for Willie’s sexy, floaty, fairyland offer in return.
And what she gets is: TURNING AND TURNING IN THE WIDENING GYRE. THE FALCON CANNOT HEAR THE FALCONER.
Whaaaat? This might sound like a risky sex dare from Irish Cosmo, but it is nothing nearly as good as that.
This is not what Georgie wants. What happened to soft words, romance words? Why is the occult in her bridal chamber? Why have dudes gotta be so fucking complicated?
This is a test. This is about what Georgie can offer William, beyond his basic “human needs”, aka “rogering”.
Is Georgie his spiritual equal, or just a young girl who has been swept away into something bigger than she realised? And if so: what is she meant to do about it?
Think carefully Georgie. A lot rides on this. Think. Think.
And so she thinks. And she decides.
And she raises her eyes somewhere higher. Her mind and her body and her love are not enough for this union. Not enough to keep this old man and this young girl together, properly so, in the way that she wants.
A higher plane is needed, an avenue she had not considered open til now, until circumstance makes it essential.
So she picks up a pen.
She closes her eyes.
And says something like, “there’s a voice speaking through me, and I need to write it down. I’ve always had this gift. I’ve never told anyone before.”
And the poet’s eyes prick up, like a tipsy Yeatsian noticing another tipsy Yeatsian in a bar called Shoot the Crows around closing time, on the final night of Yeats Summer School.
“Do you really, Mrs Yeats?”
“She’s beyond the grave, and speaking to me. She wants to be heard. Shall I write down what she says?”
And she pours voices onto pages, for him.
Voices he connects to time and people before and after him, different narratives from different slinkies, knotted together on the great circular staircase of many, many lives.
And as she writes these findings, these dredgings, of past life, of the hope for new love, this is the vision we are left with.
For him, the life he wants.
For her, the concession she’ll make.
For the rest of us: a mystery.
The thing about Would Jess Like It that you may have noticed by now is that there’s not a lot of rigour to my posting. Usually I update this blog when I’m between playwriting projects and looking for a creative outlet, because if I go for too long without writing I end up spending all day in bed watching Parks and Rec and crying solely at the happy bits.
Therefore, I save up little scraps of valuable and memorable past experiences for these exact moments, easy little starting points for a creative undertaking that will take me less than thirty minutes to do, and will then let me get back to important things like meal planning and dog analysis.
One such creative scrap I have saved up is my experience seeing the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus at Christmas time in 2013. But first, you need some context.
I was in San Francisco in December, and it was a little cold and lonely. I had just left some of my favourite people in the world behind in Singapore, and spent too little time with my childhood best friend in Los Angeles, only to find myself alone, without any of these people, in San Francisco.
I had also had my jacket stolen, because apparently people steal jackets. An ex-cop called Kevin tried to help me find it, and that was a fun story, but not the story I’m telling you today.
Lost in the pockets of my jacket were a significant heirloom beanie that had belonged to my grandmother, and a series of business cards that described me as “playwright and dog enthusiast”. It was a low day, indeed.
I was also staying in a hotel way too posh for my liking, with all the requisite clinical robotic interaction from staff that I’m not so good at dealing with. I like my customer service to be robust, flawed, and verging on TMI. I don’t want some smooth operator with straight hair, high heels and prowess with credit card swiping. It just doesn’t work for me.
The other thing about this hotel is that the walls were paper-thin and the rotating bevvy of neighbours during my stay were all there for one thing: 6am morning sex.
I don’t know if this is some niche San Francisco tourist bucket-list item, but these people were punctual, and they were loud. I would shiver in my coatless loneliness, turn up MTV to drown out their sounds, and try to work out my itinerary for the day.
One of my days in town had been earmarked for a hipster walking tour of San Francisco. This had been recommended to me by my sister Roz, who actually researches trips ahead of time, instead of waiting til she’s in a hotel room buffered on all sides by moaning Gen Xers. She told me about a tour called Wild SF Tours and I decided: why not give it a go.
I left my hotel in my new coat (thanks for trying, Kevin), made significant eye contact with the neighbours, also leaving their room for probably some gatorade and carb-loading, and joined the tour.
It was a great tour, but that’s also not the story I’m telling today, so go on the tour yourself and write your own blog about it. I’m mentioning the tour because the guy leading it walked us past the Castro Theatre and said “hey, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus is playing a Christmas show tonight. It’s going to be amazing. You guys should go.”
I got chatting with a very nice and extremely well-travelled woman named Jennifer and we decided that as people with no one to hang out with on Christmas, we would go see the show together.
And WHAT. A. SHOW.
The first moment I realised how amazing it was going to be was when two men came to sit down at the end of my row with a big white fluffy scarf on their lap, except, WHAT?
That’s not a big white fluffy scarf! That’s a motherfucking BICHON FRISE and that bichon frise is HERE FOR THE SHOW.
It’s important to note that this was a one-hour show. There were shows scheduled for 5pm, 7pm, and 9pm. So we knew we wouldn’t be in the theatre for long. But that owner of the bichon frise pretty much decided that this was some important shit to experience as a FAMILY.
We were at the 7pm show, which the choir master called “the hump show”. Imagine someone saying that to a whole room of gay men and their hags. The hoots were at a frequency that could shatter glass.
Anyway. The bichon loved the show, and I loved the show.
- The sassy conductor who would not even PAUSE between hilarious jokes, all of which I have forgotten, because of high-tenor excitement and glee.
- The guest singer Marina Harris coming onstage and admitting she had never been to the Castro before. The choir-master responded, “of course you’ve been to the Castro before; you’re either a lesbian or a fag-hag. Normal straight women don’t have dresses like that.”
- The moment where another guest singer, Matt Alber, spoke about his church background and childhood. He said, “my church kicked me out, but I moved to San Francisco and found a new one.” And the whole room erupted with whoops and cheers and cries of support and the waterworks were happening freer and faster than the episode of Parks and Rec where Lesley gets married.
- The chorus sung a bunch of Russian harmonies for solidarity with LGBT people in Russia and it was incredible.
- The whole show had sign language interpreting going on and it was ANIMATED.
- There was one song where the guys all dressed like flowers.
- And this advertisement was in the program.
So, that’s my experience with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. For one hour, I felt like I was part of the warmest, most inclusive community possible. I don’t know much about Christmas traditions (I used to think that an official Christmas food was macaroni), but whatever sort of alchemy trailed through the air that night still lives on in my memory, my soul and my spine.
Would Jess Like the Gay Men’s Chorus? Oh yes.
Would Jess Like American Ice Hockey.
Welcome to a slightly belated edition of Would Jess Like It, where I analyse a very interesting activity I participated in during my time in the United States of America.
It all began when my friend Miles told me to keep Saturday night free, because something was happening. This wasn’t difficult because I only had three friends in New York at that stage and Miles was easily the most dominant of all of them. (And still is).
So, after a day exploring the bagels of Park Slope, I followed Miles to the intentional living house where his wife Roz and her friend Katie were hanging out. This small glimpse into intentional living taught me that it involves many root vegetables and nice notes about things that are meaningful on the fridge. I liked it.
We then walked to a Zip Car pickup point where I learnt how car-sharing works in New York. You go in, and the dude working in a garage gets the car for you, and then it’s all yours for however many hours you book it. Pretty cool! Roz’s other friend Heather joined us, and it was GO GO GO. To Long Island!
It had snowed fairly recently and the roads were a bit unpleasant, but Roz got us there without any problems. “There” being a giant “coliseum” out in some part of Long Island. I knew Long Island only from The Great Gatsby, so I expected mainly billowing warm breezes, white linen, and rich jerks. Instead, it was a car park packed with excited people in jerseys who gave me much more of a Myrtle Wilson than Daisy Buchanan vibe.
So we get into the stadium and we’re bang on starting time. Except: there’s no freaking way I’m entering the stadium until I have purchased American Sport Food. Miles was all “don’t miss the American anthem, Jess” and I was all “DON’T MISS THE CHEESE SAUCE THAT COMES IN A VAT, MILES”.
I ended up with a $9 six-inch subway sandwich and a $5 bottle of water, and scurried upstairs for the match to take place.
The full name of the place was the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and you know what that meant? This place had an agenda beyond just subway sandwiches and ice hockey: they were there to HONOUR THE TROOPS.
This meant that every now and then, the roving crowd camera would seek out an Army veteran in the crowd, show them on screen, and we would all have to stand up and honour them. The crowd took this in their stride: they were all very used to the process. Beer drinking and yelling would quickly abort, they would struggle to their feet, and the honouring would begin.
(The camera would also seek out other less venerated members of the crowd, such as kids having their birthdays, couples having anniversaries, and the cleavages of the Ice Babes whose job it was to shovel away ice between quarters wearing a tiny tiny outfit and grinning like it was the most fun they had ever had in their lives. This was the only part of ice hockey that made me feel moral discomfort).
But anyway: the game. Ice hockey is quite a frenetic, exciting game. There is heaps of sliding and smacking and whacking, but all in a fairly respectful matter. Everyone in our party was angling so damn hard for a fight to break out, but no dice. Sad face.
Instead, Miles tried to start a disturbance in our own neck of the woods, all proud home-team supporters, by appropriating the New York Islanders chant into one for the rival team, the Hurricanes, and bellowing it out every single chance he got. I guess Miles’ linguistic acuity allowed him to make the judgement call about how well the 3 syllables of the rival team names could work in the same chant. It worked DAMN well.
Imagine a full bleacher of Islander fans being serenaded by Miles’s booming voice bellowing “HU-RIC-ANES! HU-RIC-ANES!” Kids were staring, faces crumbled in confusion. Teenagers were mortified on his behalf. Parents didn’t know what to do. I had to pretend I was there chaperoning the 16 year olds wearing promise rings next to me, and no friend of this buffoon. No offence Miles.
Miles’s behaviour raised a few eyebrows, but no one took the bait and punched him in the face. I think this is a symbol of the way New York has changed into a safer and less violent place in the last few years, because, I know you should never say this, but Miles was SERIOUSLY ASKING FOR IT. If he hadn’t given me a free ticket, I probably would have punched him myself.
Anyway, I guess in any sport game there’s a winner and a loser (unlike Would Jess Like It where the only contest is “how much fun are you having” (“a little”)), so I just had to google who the winners were, and it turns out it was the visiting team. Therefore, a whole bunch of dejected Islanders hot-footed it out of the stadium like it was on fire, returned to their cars and steamed off home, and that was the end of ice hockey.
I had a great night. I tried a new type of processed cheese, I got to meet Roz’s friends, it was a nice chance to remember I shouldn’t miss Miles THAT much now that he lives in America, and I thought the entertaining brackets between quarters were just delightful, barring the need for gender equality in skimpily-clad ice-babes.
Ice Hockey gets a thumbs up from Would Jess Like It. Would go again.