Can young people really change the world? Multi-award-winning playwright and MTC Writer in Residence Dan Giovannoni knows they can. In SLAP. BANG. KISS. he tracks three young people whose stories kick-start a series of events none of them could have anticipated, transforming them into global symbols of revolution. Ahead of this year's live stream for Victorian secondary schools, Dan reflects on this play's journey to the stage.
What’s the origin story of SLAP. BANG. KISS.? How did you start to write it?
'A relative gave me a copy of this zine she made, which celebrates revolutionary women that history has ignored. It made me think about who our revolutionaries are now - who are the people that, in a hundred, two hundred years’ time, the world will look back on and think 'wow, they did something, they started something'? I’d also been thinking about the myths we are told about teenagers - that they're all apathetic, apolitical, disinterested. The teenagers I meet are engaged, curious, angry, and keen to be listened to. I wanted to write something that rejected the idea of a teenager as a smelly grump sulking in their bedroom. Those two ideas came together and I decided to write a play about teenagers who, accidentally or otherwise, change the world.'
How would you describe the style of your writing in SLAP. BANG. KISS.? Does it lend itself to a particular style of performance that you prefer?
'SLAP. BANG. KISS. uses a combination of direct address (monologue, soliloquy, narration) and dialogue - characters switch fluidly between talking to the audience, themselves and each other. I don't choose a performance style before I write, really - it might sound silly, but I let the play tell me what it needs. This play is about three young people whose personal experience leads them to do something that impacts the world - so I started with those characters talking to us in monologue, and then tracked their story as it began to impact others. I'm quite fond of art that celebrates language - I love Mark O'Rowe's Terminus (three intersecting monologues written in a poetic, almost musical style), I love Kate Tempest's spoken word - they were real inspirations for the style of SLAP. BANG. KISS.'
Dan Giovannoni during a play reading at MPavilion in 2018. PHOTO: Sarah Walker.
How would you describe your writing process for this play?
'After the initial rush of ideas (during which I think I'm a genius), my process is pretty much just eating heaps of snacks and panicking about what I don't know yet. With SLAP. BANG. KISS. there were things I knew pretty early on, and that guided the writing process. I knew the characters - I knew it was about a kid who stood up to a figure of authority, a kid who survived a school shooting, and a kid who wanted to set the world record for the longest kiss. I read lots - I read about real-life examples of each of those scenarios, I read about social movements started by young people, I read about events/incidents that went viral on social media and how that happened. I realised pretty quickly I wasn't trying to tell a 'true' story (whatever that is) - I wanted to write something more universal, which is why I set the play in the 'near future'.
I talked to young people a lot, putting the ideas and some early material in front of teenagers as soon as I could - MTC Ambassadors and young people from House of Muchness offered their advice and feedback, and we had great roundtable conversations about the ideas in the play. I also knew the shape of the story - I knew the play was going to start with three people and with single actions (a slap, a bang, a kiss) and then was going to follow the effect of those actions as they rippled out into the world - I knew the play was going to start small and get bigger and bigger, further and further away from the protagonists. That shape was always in my head as I wrote it. As the play developed, and I worked through the drafts, I spoke to the Education team at MTC, and the director Prue Clark, and my dramaturgs Chris Mead and Jenni Medway (from MTC’s Literary department), and their feedback helped guide each new draft too.'
SLAP. BANG. KISS. had a development week before the first lockdown, early in March 2020. As the playwright, what did you do during the development week?
'Write! Learn! Panic! Maybe this is true of every play, but certainly with this one I was aware that the play we read around the table was (is) different to the play that we put on the stage - listening to actors reading in chairs is different to watching actors walk around on a set, and the development was a chance to see the actors work with the material on the floor. I met with the director, Prue, several times before the creative development, and we made a little plan of the things we wanted to achieve in the week - she wanted to see a rough draft of the whole play, so she could understand better how it might be staged; I wanted to write a new draft of the whole play, working scene by scene to make sure all the elements I was playing with were examined and re-drafted. During the week, I would bring in new versions of scenes most days, and we'd read them, then talk about them in relation to the whole play, talk about the changes I'd made and what we missed from the old versions/what needed further refining. Then the actors would play with the text on the set, and I'd go home at night and do some more writing. It's tiring - your brain feels like it's leaking out your ears when you've heard your play literally fifteen times in five days - but I rely on these periods of time, and my collaborators, to help bring the material together.'
Dan Giovannoni makes notes during a development for SLAP. BANG. KISS. PHOTO: Melanie Sheridan.
Could you describe an example of collaborating with actors and creatives in the rehearsal room?
'I rely heavily on my collaborators to meet me in my writing process. My first drafts are often a confusing mess of ideas, threads that I haven't followed through properly, moments that start but don't end. The team help me pick through those things and refine them. For example, Artemis, who plays (among others) Sofia, mentioned early on in the development that a lot of Sofia's experience of the world is aural - she often talks about sound. I hadn't noticed that myself (I pretended it was on purpose obviously - her part of the story is 'bang' after all, a sound) - and so Artemis and I kept talking about sound throughout the week.'
Do you like to insert challenges for the production team into your script? Leave things open to interpretation by a director? Or try to be specific with stage directions?
'A bit of both. I've never written anything that can't be staged in some way - but I think that speaks more to theatre's capacity to invent and transform, as well as my collaborators’ ability to make difficult things happen in creative ways. There are not many stage directions in SLAP. BANG. KISS. It's probably the most open text I've ever written - there are lots of locations, dozens of characters. Prue and I spoke about that right back at the beginning, that whatever the design was needed to leave space for transformation. It needed to be a big city, a suburban high school, a country town, a train, a street, a thousands-strong march, a cupboard. I was a bit worried about it at the start but once I knew Kate Davis was designing it, all that worry evaporated - she's an absolute genius.' Hope is a key theme in a lot of your work, particularly this play.
How does SLAP. BANG. KISS. speak to our rapidly changing world?
'There's lots to be scared about in the world. That might always have been the case, but right now this time on Earth feels particularly overwhelming. It's easy to feel small in a big world, and easy especially for young people to feel small, to feel ignored, to feel like they have to wait until they're adults to become respected members of society with valid opinions that might be listened to. Hope is something you have to work at, I think, and I'm working at it myself. I'm trying to work against worry and fear and live with hope. I suppose I could have written a play about how horrible the world can be - how aggressive regimes squash people, how poor policy and weak governments fail their citizens, how fear can divide us - but instead I wanted the play to be an invitation to young people stepping into the world - an opportunity to see folks like them leading change, demanding their voices be heard.'
Published on 30 July 2020