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Robo Report #1: Figs and Cogs

Updated: Jun 17, 2019

Last week I spent five days in Hobart with legendary playwright Finegan Kruckmeyer, working on a brand new script for our play My Robot. It’s pretty wonderful being part of the process as a playscript takes shape, especially one as unique as this. So I thought I’d give you an insight into how the script came about. And a sneak preview of what’s in store…

I have rarely seen a writer work so quickly. The script went from draft one to four in the space of a week. The resulting text is brimming with brilliant ideas, touching moments and scenes so hilarious that a bit of wee comes out when you read them.

Finegan’s story centres on young Ophelia, who has moved to a new town by the seaside. This place is odd, the people are weird and she misses home. So when a pile of junk arrives from the junkshop downstairs with the instructions “Make Me”, Ophelia can’t resist. But what kind of friend can you make from:

A typewriter, cheese grater, switch and a spring. A pipe, lighter, alligator clips and some string. A biscuit tin, fan belts, a torch, some hair rollers. A broken alarm clock and three wheels from a stroller?

Fin and Matt next to the fig tree

The story goes on to answer this in the most imaginative of ways. And of course I can’t say much more at this stage…

Every writer-director relationship is unique. Strange as it may sound, Finegan and I only met face-to-face in Hobart last week as I turned up with my notes and questions all over his first draft. So it was a great relief to slip into an effortless working rapport. Fin’s work is playful and joyous but also detailed and precise, so I am cautious about how we talk about how it might evolve and change. But he turns out to be entirely unafraid of provocations and challenges. His eagerness to work through my pages of notes and questions on day one sets the tone for our working together. The cogs turn quickly as Fin shapes and reshapes the story, character and dialogue, always into something better than I could have imagined.

I think back to eighteen months ago, when Fin and I first spoke. Back then, I thought we were going to commission a very different play…

I remember ending our first phone call with a strong desire to make a show together about the intersection between science and art. I had called Fin during a break snatched from rehearsals, rugged up in a patch of Sydney winter sun. He had talked about the importance of treating children with deep respect. He told me he loved the idea of exploring science with young people. And he said how much he liked being given new ideas to work from, sometimes even more than inventing them himself.

Some very old plants in Hobart, from Rachel Sussman’s The Oldest Living Things In The World

Perfect, I thought! We’ll dream up a play about the natural world. One of my favourite books is The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman – a stunning photographic book about living things that have a minimum age of 2000 years. I imagined a work drawing on these kind of big exciting ideas – science and art woven beautifully around a central idea.

But many months later, it was a very different branch of science that got me excited enough to pick up the phone again. When the idea of a play about a robot emerged from conversations within the Barking Gecko team, I immediately thought of Fin. His curious and playful mind was a perfect match for the technical brilliance of our Western Australian robot boffins.

My Robot, Poster Artwork by Juicebox

Of course, Finegan has form working between Hobart and Perth. Usually on scripts with short, snappy titles. Most recently he wrote Those Who Fall in Love Like Anchors Dropped Upon the Ocean Floor (Jo Morris + Themoxycollective). And previously This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing (Barking Gecko, directed by Noel Jordan). Hobart and Perth: two vibrant corners of the country working together. What’s not to love?

Finegan at desk, overlooking the fig tree

Back in Hobart, I’m getting an insight into Fin’s inspirations. Fin writes in his study at the top of a steep hill with a fig tree outside his window. The house is right next to the Hobart CBD, but his overflowing vege garden, coop of lively chooks (“the ladies”) and view of the river make it feel more like a country retreat. The neighbours often stop off metres from his writing desk to collect figs throughout the day.

When you pay attention to it, you can feel Hobart as a muse for Fin’s writing. You notice the presence of Hobart’s hills and oceans in his imagery. The network of relationships he creates feels grounded in a lived experience of a tight-knit community. His stories and themes seem to continually circle around making peace with that community, or with family.

In fact, it turns out that the whole of Hobart is a pretty inspiring city to explore if you’re working on a script. Our discussions ramble through laneways surrounded by great street art, the lounge at the vibrant Alabama Hotel, a conference space at Arts Tasmania and Fin’s sunlit back room.

The Alabama Hotel, arty haven for writers and lovers of plastic flamingos

Hobart street art by iconic Perth artist Stormie Mills

Topics of discussion range over robot ethics and philosophy, story structure, poetic techniques and mechanical eyebrows. We explore whether you can make a robot catch a ball (not without a lot of money as it turns out). There’s even time for some lateral exploration at MONA’s latest exhibition On the Origin of Art. The new exhibition has a huge number of inspiring works, including some great anthropomorphic machines.

A woman chooses a door at the MONA exhibition, On the Origin of Art

The Lovers, by artist Patricia Piccinini, MONA

On Thursday our amazing set and costume designer Isla Shaw pops down from Melbourne to get us thinking about aesthetics with dozens of stimulus images. We hear the play aloud with two terrific local actors Craig Iron and Karissa Lane. And we squeeze in a Skype session with awesome Robot builder Steve Berrick back in Perth.

We confirm that the robot will roll, not walk. That it will have a typewriter for a torso. And that it will not be catching any balls.

Our next creative development is in a little over a week’s time in Perth. We’ll be testing Robot protypes with Steve as well as fleshing out the set design with Isla. And we’ll be putting draft four of the script through its paces in the mouths of some of Perth’s best actors. I can’t wait!

My Robot will premiere at the State Theatre Centre in November 2017.

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