Review of Big Dramas 2e

Cathy Oliver, December 2014


“Such a collection is long overdue.”

Big Dramas 2e will provide your students with the scripts, the ideas and the genius to produce first rate productions that your students will love to call their own. This collection of 16 plays has been written for secondary school level but primary school students would enjoy presenting the accessible and humorous Scrambled Eggs and Blast Off! These are great fun.  Such a collection for Year 5 to Year 10 is long overdue.

The extensive themes are of universal interest to teenagers: boyfriends, girlfriends, high school formals, embarrassing parents, blended families, grandparents, sci-fi, the surreal, school bullying, mental health, eating disorders and body image, history and the meeting of cultures.

The overall tone of the plays is buoyant and inviting for the depth of the 20-minute treatment each receives. Deeper discussion of the weightier side of some of these issues can be followed through in the classroom. The language is not difficult, and this helps to keep the tenor light. Of the plays mentioned for primary school use above, no modification of language for Years 5-6 would be needed.

“Such a wide variety in 16 plays from one author is a definite strength of the collection.”

The compass of the type of drama is full circle. The collection’s scope ranges from the naturalistic, the sit com, and the monologue to the absurd, the fantastic, the historical, and even a radio play. Such a wide variety in 16 plays from the one author is a definite strength of the collection.

Additionally, literary heritage is included with tributes to Shakespeare, fairy tales and myths from around the world. A tongue-in-cheek revamp of Macbeth takes the action into the business world, with a twist of an ending. Only taking 20 minutes, it is fast and racy yet still includes some of the bard’s most famous quotes and retains the overall character of its famous counterpart. This will be a big hit with those who like Shakespeare as well as those who find it difficult.

Each play is followed by a page of detailed suggestions for performance and staging. These are generously helpful and include ideas for making the plays suitable for varying sizes of groups. Thus the plays are adaptable to class size. This offers a major advantage over typical school dramas that are geared to set numbers and settings. Building on such versatility, most of the plays depend on simple, even stark props, for example just a chair or two, with interest being added by colourful costumes.    

“…a beginning rather than a destination for Drama and English students.”

The practical Teacher Notes are aimed to make the plays a beginning rather than a destination for Drama and English students. The subject matter of each play is deepened and becomes a personal reflective learning experience for each student. 

The writing of The First Australian

Sue Murray reflects on her newest work and experiencing unexpected writer’s block

I’ve written many plays in many ways over the years. Some scripts have evolved from improvisation or play-building sessions with actors. Some grew from a kernel of an idea that I had to feed and water and nurture. Some sprang almost fully formed into their final shape, with me feeling more like a scribe than a creator. A few have been based on people’s lives; people who shared often painful, always very real insights into their personal worlds. One or two plays were written for pragmatic reasons: I should have a script that will appeal to male actors as I tend to write for female actors; I must write a script that fulfils the commission I have signed. What I didn’t expect when I decided to write a new play for the second edition of Big Dramas was to write a play that gave me writer’s block.

Sue Murray workshopping The First Australian

Sue Murray workshopping The First Australian
(standing, left to right) Hugo Ellis, Theo Murray, Ella Byrne, (sitting) Sue Murray.

I’ve never had writer’s block before. Ideas seem to be in endless supply. Words come when bidden. Sometimes slowly. Sometimes in a rush, but they come. I don’t remember staring at a blank screen with no clue as to how to start writing before I chose to write a play about Bungaree. 

I did decide for pragmatic reasons to write about Aboriginal Australia. I was aware that I had not created many Aboriginal characters in my plays or addressed any of the myriad issues Australia as a nation faces that come from the British occupation of the continent. I had recently written an article for The School Magazine about Bungaree, so it seemed logical to use the research for that article as the starting point for a play. I thought it would be simple. I was wrong.

“The more I read of Bungaree, the more I was intrigued by this enigmatic character from the shadows of Australia’s not-too-distant past”

I should say now that I had not heard of Bungaree until late in 2013 when I heard an interview with Djon Mundine, the curator of an exhibition of artworks by Indigenous artists, all of whom used Bungaree as inspiration. Djon Mundine highlighted the fact that many people knew that Matthew Flinders circumnavigated Australia with his cat, but few people knew that Flinders was also accompanied by the first native-born Australian to circumnavigate our contintent—Bungaree. Who? Why didn’t we know of him?

Answering these questions for myself led to writing the article for the magazine. The more I read of Bungaree, the more I was intrigued by this enigmatic character from the shadows of Australia’s not-too-distant past. Writing a 2000-word article for primary school students meant that I could only touch on a few key points of Bungaree’s story, and tell them as objectively as possible.

Revisiting the research for the play—a different purpose, with a different audience—meant delving deeper into some of the questions such research raises. It also meant finding a way to shape such material for the stage. As I mulled over how to do this, I hit what felt like an insurmountable block—how could I give Bungaree a voice?

“…which led me to the realisation that history is told by the victors”

How could I begin to imagine how he spoke? I couldn’t even begin to fathom some of his motivations. Why did he choose to work for the invading nation? How did he feel after Europeans killed his father? What was his attitude to being given the clearly false title of ‘king of the Broken Bay tribe’ by the governor? To avoid starting to write the play, I researched more and more, hoping that I would find a clue, a key, a way into the script—or a skein of wool like Ariadne gave Theseus as he explored the labyrinth.

I then began to ponder the broader question of why some people are lost in the mist of history—which led me to the realisation that history is told by the victors. In his day, Bungaree was arguably better-known in the colony, and in Europe, than any of the governors.

I was well aware of a pressing need to meet a deadline. I am a deadline-driven writer. And so I did what I rarely do: I sat with a blank screen and hoped. I was on the Manly ferry. This is one of the world’s best commutes: half an hour from Manly Wharf on a huge double-decker ferry. Aptly, it also passes many sites that are part of Bungaree’s story: the tract of land on Georges Head granted to Bungaree; Rose Bay, his last resting place; the Domain, where he died; and Circular Quay, where he spent a lot of time in later years as a busker, beggar and boozer.  Of course, the ferry also passes the many places where the sailing vessels Bungaree served on would have moored.

So the ferry cast off from Manly Wharf and I willed my fingers to type. And each line I typed posed a question I had to answer. That answer led to another line or two, and another question. Here is a recreation of some of those first questions and answers, as nearly as I can recall them. Remember, I am typing the script as these thoughts are coming and going …

What is on stage?
A bicorn hat. Bungaree’s bicorn hat.
Why is it there?
It’s one relic of his life. It’s in a dusty museum.
What else is in the museum.
Bungaree, wrapped in a dustcloth.
Why is he wrapped up?
He’s forgotten. Swaddled in the folds of history.

Suddenly, I had found the end of the skein of wool, the key, the way in. I was not giving voice to Bungaree—I was giving voice to a historical construct of him. The character on stage is not Bungaree, it’s what history gives us of Bungaree. The same with Flinders and Macquarie.

So the stage directions gave me the way in. By now the ferry was crossing the Heads. Time for Bungaree to move and speak. The first lines of many of my plays encapsulate the essence of the play—unwittingly, I must confess. The first words Bungaree speaks, ‘Who am I?’ are the core of the play. Free from trying to portray the actual man, the character came to life in front of my mind’s eye. Sometime when I write I can see and hear the characters. This was one of those times. The play started writing itself.

As we plied our way towards the Quay, past the unmarked grave of Bungaree, questions and their answers came to me. Of course I needed to bring Flinders on. And he was a pompous egomaniac. How else would I portray a man whose journals record in such detail his endeavours but so little of the endeavours of others? And Macquarie is almost set in stone as he is one of the iconic figures of post-European-arrival Australian history. He ensured that by naming most of the landmarks after himself or his wife.

By the time we passed the Domain, I had the rest of the shape of the play roughly mapped out in my head, and the first 400 words of the script already written. I saved the document, closed my laptop, and took in the sights as we rounded the Opera House with the Harbour Bridge dominating the right-hand skyline. It was a postcard-perfect morning, with the sunlight reflecting off glass skyscrapers and dancing on the deep, deep water of Farm Cove. I thought for a moment of the many, many stories this place could tell if we could strip back the layers of history. And I felt that deep relief that a writer feels when the block has dissolved.

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