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Screen Shot 2018 11 14 at 3.11.07 pmPlaylab is welcoming Maxine Mellor as our 2018–2019 Playwright-in-Residence. Through the process, including rigorous dramaturgy, two development workshops and a trip our west, Max is developing Horizon – a new work set to join our growing collection of Playlab Productions. We'll be updating you with information on the project as the program unfolds, but for now here's a taste of what's to come:

Horizon by Maxine Mellor

Cole and Sky, are a young couple hitting the highway. Heading out to the gaping open-cut mines of Cole's late father, they're filled with unbridled enthusiasm fo the journey ahead. The boundless plains stretch ahead inspiring conspiratorial romantic dreaming and poetic ruminations.

As they leave behind familiar territory, heatwaves warp the looming horizon and the air becomes sinister. A long-forgotten mix tape buried deep in the glovebox underscores the journey, but out of the static following the final song comes the recorded voice of a pubescent Cole – spitting fury and angst. Sky scratches deeper, searching for traces of anger and violence that might still linger, while Cole tallies roadkill and feels every bump in the bitumen. The horizon beckons, yet their chance of making it to their destination intact is reducing each dusty kilometre.

Horizon is a high-octane adrenaline rush of sweat, grit and dangerous ambition set in a classic car tearing its way from Queensland's east coast to the guts of the country.

More on Max:

Maxine Mellor is an award-winning playwright of over twenty works. Awards include the Queensland Theatre's Young Playwright's Award (2001, 2002, 2003); the QTC George Landen Dann Award (2004); and a Matilda Award for best new independent work for Performance (2005) for Magda's Fascination with Wax Cats. In 2012 she won Inscription's Edward Albee New York City Residency Scholarship, and the 2012/2013 Queensland Premier's Drama Award. Maxine won the Max Afford Playwriting Award for 2014 for The Silver Alps, and in 2017, and received the Lord Mayor's Young & Emerging Artists Fellowship to undertake professional development through Singapore, Iceland and the UK.

Maxine's work has been showcased at the National Play Festival twice and throughout the USA as part of Inscription's Playwriting and Screenwriting tour (2014). Recent productions include La Boite's national tour of Maxine's stage adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, Trollop at Queensland Theatre, The Wizard of Oz (in collaboration with The Danger Ensemble, Brisbane Festival and La Boite), and Anna Robi & The House of Dogs (Brisbane Festival's Under the Radar). Her plays have been produced throughout Australiia, and are published with Playlab and Australian Plays.

Maxine also regularly teaches and mentors emerging writers throughout schools and universities, including recently facilitating Playwriting Australia's Lotus program for Asian Australian playwrights. She is a qualified drama and visual art teacher and often works with gifted and talented students delivering workshops in various creative fields.

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As is currently stands, Playlab can only support ont playwright a year through this program. It is our intension to expand this initiative to more playwrights per year, but in order to do this we need your support. If you are in a position to partner with us financially, please support us and donate here. Contribution of any amount can make a difference.

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A lot has happened since that initial wave of relief upon finishing the first draft back in May. After a bit of a hiatus to let the red dust settle into the lines and cracks of the pages [and so that Ian could weave his magic on Playlab’s most recent production, Magpie, by Elise Greig], we’ve since had many discussions, milestones, and multiple drafts with their ‘tracked changes’ looking like the nips and tucks of a plastic surgeon, getting this body into shape in time for summer. We’ve lost something like twenty pages, lost the ‘bulk’ of over-zealous mood-building lines in Draft One, and are starting to appreciate this new svelte, streamlined structure underneath it all.

In the middle of July, we spent a couple of days diving deep into the dust of the piece with actors and creatives – our first creative development. We were joined by actors Sam Foster [as Cole] and Ngoc Phan [as Sky] who impressed us with their speedy drop into the characters, with their probing questions about Cole and Sky’s relationship, and with their thoughtful conversation about the themes of the work [namely, where the bloody hell are we going?]. Nathan Sibthorpe, our A/V designer – who must be one of the busiest folks in Brisbane – brought fresh and challenging design ideas which helped me to consider visual motifs more tangibly. Guy Webster – music man extraordinaire – came for a read to start musing on some sound worlds. Since 80’s synth-pop was on high rotation for me while I was writing the piece, I’m curious to see whether this will translate to the stage or if it’s just a writing crutch!

Somewhere in there all, too, was a sneaky announcement of the poster image, designed by the distinctly talented Sean Dowling. It’s a little beauty! A horizon transitioning from day to night, a classic car, and a trail of dingos catching them up – it’s a homage to classic road trip movie posters from the 80’s and 90’s, with just the right amount of darkness and whimsy. 

From here? An official “Draft Two” [despite my over-enthusiastic attempts to label every minor adjustment as a new draft], another creative development, and plans for a roadtrip sometime before summer fully hits. Amidst all this, I’ll also be continuing my mentoring role with the Young Playwrights in Residence, Samantha Hammond and Madeleine Border, who are both wrestling with some fantastically fun ideas. They’ll have a reading of their works in progress sometime in November, so we are beating away at beat sheets, and whittling away at words.

For now, praise be to Tracked Changes.

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It's a thing now. Draft One of Horizon. Eighty-four pages and some 17,000 words.

It's a funny feeling, finishing a first draft. There's a sense of elation as you centre-align and Ctrl+B the words: The End, or End of Play, or Fin or whatever you put there in that blank space to make sure the reader knows that's everything and all you want or have to say. Your fingers never move as fast as they do when you’re patching up the last few lines to make that bit join to that previous bit and the voices are coming thick and fast and the soundtrack is ringing and everything is making perfect sense and you can see through time and space and understand the complex connection between all living things in this universe you’ve created and the world out there. Or something like that. And then you send it away with a sense of both pride and dread. Because you know this is only Draft One.

Still, before we move on to re-writing, let’s enjoy just some of the surprises that only the process of writing Draft One can throw up:

·  Discovering the playfulness between the two characters – pun and innuendo abound!

· Settling on the visual motifs for each character (since we're using a lot of AV) and seeing how it evolves through the course of the play to tell its own story.

·  Unravelling what exactly happened in a #metoo inspired court case that one of the characters was involved with, and realising it's much darker and more complex than anticipated.

·   Balancing the different worlds of the piece (the character' real world, their cokkaborative fantasy, their inner worlds, and the spectral world that chases them).


Since submitting the first draft, Ian and I have met to discuss first impressions and check it against the beat sheet to see that it is capturing what we originally wanted to express. And, thankfully, there is a lot that’s working! Somewhere within those 17,000 words, there are lines and maybe even whole pages that do the things we wanted them to.

Ian cleverly set a challenge to rewrite just the first (crucial) fifteen pages before our next meeting, and already I’m seeing a clarity in these newly drafted scenes that can only come after struggling through a first draft.

And, so, the rewriting process doesn't have to be dreaded. There's a thing to pull apart, tigheen, re-arrange, and play with . And when you set yourself further research to undertake while rewriting – like watching 80s road trip movie trailers - it can actually be kind of fun.

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Things that have been inspiring me: court transcripts, children raised by animals, giants, and deathbeds.

I’ve just finished version four [or maybe more – I’ve lost track] of a beat sheet where each moment of the story of Horizon is laid out in bite-sized pieces. Much more detailed than a synopsis or even a scene breakdown, a beat sheet drills down into individual units of action to see how one moment does [or doesn’t] lead to the next. Action is described, dialogue and key lines are sketched, and meaning and images are explained. It’s like writing an instruction manual on how to write the play, with more words and fewer cryptic diagrams [though my rough notes feature a few flowcharts and random sketches of wild dingo girls in the margins].

I’m used to planning before writing – I think every one of my plays to date has gone through a process of story planning – but with this project, I’m taking that extra time and making those extra paragraph breaks to really explore the nuances of the characters and their motivations. What’s that old saying? A stitch in time saves nine terrible drafts and a nervous breakdown. That’s the hope, anyway; that by welding together the best possible chassis and fine-tuning the engine, the ride down Writing Road will be smoother and quicker.

I’m mindful, though, that a play is not only its mechanics or structure. If I’m to persevere rather obviously with this car-themed analogy, a play is also made up of its upholstery, its paintwork, and by whatever fluffy dice, crystal or expired air-freshener hangs from the rear-vision mirror. In short, a play is also about its style, and at times I’ve rolled this work in progress over to the custom paint shop to test out how it might look or sound in script form. Small sections of dialogue have burst through while outlining an argument, and I’ve been exploring how moments when the characters collaboratively conjure a fictional film trailer to frame their real situation might work on the page.

There are several opportunities to really play with the palette in Horizon; there’s the world of the car; the fiction the characters create together; the characters’ internal worlds played out on the hood or bonnet under abstract skies; and the external world that chases them. Laying all this out in a beat sheet allows me to see the contrast and connection between these textures.

It occurred to me recently, while visiting my sick dad in hospital and meeting his elderly ward mates, that few of us spend even a fraction of the time it takes to write a beat sheet sketching out our own lives, thoughts, desires, and motivations. We don’t analyse our turning points, ask whether what we want is what we need, or ensure the rhythm or pace of our lives leads to some satisfying conclusion. Life is not always as curated as life on stage. Though, maybe in watching life on stage we can take that time to reflect and understand. Maybe a play can make us realise some things are better said or done in Act One, rather than waiting until the curtain.

Look, here I am towards the end, rushing to say something meaningful. Like so many of us.

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Things that have been inspiring me: synthwave soundtracks, the Lindy Chamberlain case, ‘incels’, mining magnates, and roadtrip movies.

It seems a broad and unrelated smattering of sources, but this is wide-net casting and weaving process of research is all part of the conceptualising phase of playwriting that I love. You can go down unending internet rabbit holes and midnight wanderings of the web and call it work. Of course, it’s made a little more purposeful by knowing at least the premise of the play you’re writing. For Horizon, it was basically this:

A couple in a car heading out west whose personal problems are political.

The car was a conceptual present from Ian Lawson [who’s been a crucial driver and passenger to share the ride with], and it immediately gave a set piece to play and grapple with. Rather than it being a stationary metal blob replete with faux horn-beeping and car-crash acting, this vehicle will come alive as a spinning, illuminated, breathing organism barely able to contain the bodies inside it as they dance, slide, and climb out and over it. There’s talk of multiple projectors and screens filling the space with video and animation of the real and symbolic, and soundtracks are being born (at least in our heads) of the howls of highway ghosts haunting and chasing this car towards a terrifying resolution.

Suddenly, a two-hander feels much larger than a two-hander.

While we await to the new year when we’ll spend an extended period working alongside the video, lighting and sound artists, being able to envisage these textural layers at this point in the process has really expanded the scope of Horizon. Dialogue doesn’t have to do all the work! As the characters’ internal worlds have been shaped, we’ve been discussing what those worlds physically look and sound like. As we’ve burdened these poor characters with personal issues, we’ve been noticing how reflective they of the complex issues we face as a nation: how men and women are raised and behave, dark histories, environment vs industry, and ambition and progress.

So far, with regular check-ins and chats about what we’re doing (with our lives and the play) we’ve arrived at a beat sheet of scenes and micro-moments that grows daily and will serve as the starting point to the writing of the play. Research and refinement continues, and we look forward to Draft 1.0, the creative development, and the road trip out west (when it’s nowhere near this hot!).

While we have some idea of the things that are chasing these characters, we still haven’t decided what exactly is over the horizon.
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