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Writing hope

Dan Giovannoni isn’t interested in painting a bleak picture of the world.

By Daniel Coghlan

Dan Giovannoni isn’t interested in stories without hope.

‘I don’t think people want to see a picture of the world that is bleak. There’s shit that happens but it’s not that bleak; there’s so many other ways to spin that story, one that’s more hopeful.’

It’s an attitude he brings to his work as a playwright, and to his day-to-day life in general. The life of a writer brings with it a predictably unpredictable world. Yet Giovannoni curiously finds joy in ‘looking at a life without any stability’.

‘Rather than being kind of freaked out that I have fewer options, I see all of these options – I can make my life look however I want it to look and that extends into my interpersonal relationships and it extends into my art as well. The world is sort of just whatever I make it.’

Despite his supportive parents being ‘genuinely shocked’ that he can make a living from working as an artist, 2019 is proving to be yet another busy year for the young playwright. While crafting five new pieces of work, Giovannoni continues to see his plays open repeat return seasons.

This week, Little Ones Theatre's Green Room Award-winning Merciless Gods, opens its third season in as many years. Based on Christos Tsiolkas’ collection of short stories, Giovannoni’ s adaptation was described by The Guardian as 'a harsh theatrical landscape, but a lyrical one ... insidious and vicious and suddenly gentle but never sweet'. The production, which comes with an 18+ warning, deals with grief, drug addiction, sex and random acts of violence. They’re themes that he didn’t find particularly hopeful on first read, but through reimagining the stories for the stage he nevertheless ‘found the hope, and the light, and the beauty in them’.

‘We were getting to the heart of what Christos initially intended with his work, and then refiltering this through my lens … some of those stories are 20 years old and in some ways, we live in a different Australia. But at the same time, there are things in there that are the same about outsiders, about growing up queer in migrant communities, in whose story you’re hearing, and who’s telling you their story.’

Alongside works such as Merciless Gods, another of Giovannoni’s adapted plays, Bambert’s Book of Lost Stories has been touring regularly since 2016 when it picked up the Helpmann Award for Best Presentation for Children.

Despite its young target audience, Bambert’s Book of Lost Stories deals with some dark moments in history, including stories based during the Holocaust. ‘It’s a very, very sad story, but the treatment it gets in our work is one of hope,’ Giovannoni explains.

‘I really try to write a world full of hope for young people. I think it’s the responsibility of me as an adult writing for kids to paint the world as hopeful, but not to sort of gloss over anything. I genuinely believe there’s not much you can’t say to a kid, you just have to find the right way to say it.

2019 also sees Giovannoni enter his second year as a Writer in Residence at Melbourne Theatre Company as part of its NEXT STAGE Writers’ Program. It’s an opportunity that has granted him some unexpected stability, allowing him to quit his casual job of ten years and ‘deep dive’ into his writing.

‘Before [NEXT STAGE] I felt like I was doing nothing very well. I was doing a bit of everything but compromising a little bit. I was doing shit customer service at my casual job, and delivering a slightly under par draft, whereas now those customers don’t have to deal with my bad service, and [MTC’s Literary team] Jenni [Medway] and Chris [Mead] get to read a slightly tighter script!’

The flexibility of his new writing schedule has provided a real benefit, he says. ‘The residence is an investment in me as an artist … into the time for my ideas to grow and germinate. It’s still a “bowerbirding” process, but now I don’t have to force it. Sometimes I would force an idea before it’s really ready, and it shows in the writing. I really don’t think I would have got the play I am writing now out if I was still working casually.’

The play in question is currently titled The Body. Opening on a body that has fallen through the roof of a remote shack, it expands into a narrative inspired by Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 that was shot down over Ukraine, and the complexities of its interwoven characters.

Yet once again, Giovannoni refuses to allow that picture to be painted bleakly. Leaning into his natural optimism, The Body continues his exploration of grim topics with a hopeful outlook. ‘There is a hopeless version – about how meaningless life is and how we try and make meaning in a meaningless world. But actually, I think that can be spun in a different way, which is what I’m choosing to do.’

‘It is about interconnectedness and collective grieving and how we are the same as each other. Something that happens on the other side of the world has ripples that affect me here, which means I am tied to the other person. We are not separate. Things do not happen in isolation and they are not meaningless. We make meaning out of them.’

Published on 4 February 2019

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