NEXT STAGE commission Elise Esther Hearst writing in Southbank Theatre's Lawler Studio. Photo:James Henry
NEXT STAGE commission Elise Esther Hearst writing in Southbank Theatre's Lawler Studio. Photo:James Henry
Feature

Welcome to NEXT STAGE 2020

While COVID has certainly put a spoke in the wheel of 2020, MTC’s NEXT STAGE Writers’ Program has been continuing apace behind the scenes.

By Melanie Sheridan

Joining the program this year are two new writers-in-residence, Emme Hoy and Merlynn Tong. There are also new commissions for Andrea James and Nathan Maynard, as well as a collaboration between Phillip Kavanagh and Elise Esther Hearst, with more to be announced soon. Although they have all been unable to work together in person, plenty of dreaming, planning and writing has still been done.

Launched in 2017, Melbourne Theatre Company’s NEXT STAGE Writers’ Program is one of the most rigorous playwright commissioning and development projects ever seen in Australia. Established as a five-year commitment to local writers and live storytelling, the program has so far resulted in 24 commissioned works and welcomed nine writers-in-residence, not to mention the mainstage premieres of two plays – Anchuli Felicia King’s Golden Shield and Benjamin Law’s Torch the Place – with another three initially programmed for the Company’s 2020 season: Joanna Murray-Smith’s Berlin, Dan Giovannoni’s SLAP. BANG. KISS., and Aidan Fennessy’s The Heartbreak Choir.

Obviously, this year hasn’t panned out the way any of us wanted. But despite the COVID shutdowns and postponements that have devastated our artists and our industry, behind the scenes the MTC Literary team and the NEXT STAGE program have adapted and continued to support the next generation of Australian playwrights, thanks to the foundations, organisations and donors of MTC’s Playwrights Giving Circle.

Resident writers

Through the program, residencies are available annually to writers who would benefit from the unique experience of working inside a major theatre company. In 2020, two year-long positions were made available to two extraordinary playwrights. Under normal circumstances residents have access to a desk, phone and computer at Company HQ, not to mention tickets to our shows! What 2020 hasn’t altered is their access to dramaturgical support from MTC’s artistic staff, fellow NEXT STAGE writers and alumni as well as the insight and development that comes from being fundamental part of a major theatre company.

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Merlynn Tong

An actor as well as a multi-award-winning young playwright, Merlynn Tong may be familiar to MTC audiences who attended the Cybec Electric readings in February this year. There, she presented an excerpt of her work-in-progress, Golden Blood – a play that is very loosely based on her life as an orphan in Singapore raised by her ‘gangster’ brother. ‘It was magical working on [it] as part of Cybec,’ Tong says. ‘The literary team at MTC gave me fantastic dramaturgical support, vast amounts of creativity and a safe environment where I could really stretch my artistic muscles and play.’

While the Cybec Electric experience provided Tong the opportunity to test her words and their impact on actors and audiences, as a NEXT STAGE resident she’ll be afforded the necessary time and feedback to develop them further, into a whole play. The opportunity ‘means everything’ to her. ‘When I got the phone call saying I was accepted I was so excited I almost jumped out of my skin,’ she says. ‘This residency really affirms my craft as a writer: it means I can commit to my writing, I can receive support when I need it.’

 

‘Such opportunities are so important, especially at a time like this: this opportunity says to artists that they are seen, they are still valued.’

 

For Emme Hoy, who has been winning accolades and awards for her writing since high school, becoming a NEXT STAGE resident is a dream come true. ‘I remember the year the NEXT STAGE residency was first announced, the buzz about it among my friends, and how desperately I wanted to be a part of it,’ she explains. ‘I think I’ve applied for it every single year submissions were open; so to get the interview and the call that I’d been given a spot was something I’ll never forget. It’s an opportunity I’ve wanted for a long time.’

Hoy, who was last year shortlisted for the first International Award of Britain’s prestigious Bruntwood Prize, plans to use her residency to work on a new play that she calls ‘a bit of a reaction to the year we’ve just had, but maybe not in the way you’d expect. It’s about escapism, hope and play … and it’s what I’ve been craving seeing this year while theatres have been closed.’

Both residents emphasise the crucial place of programs such as NEXT STAGE in the Australian writing landscape. ‘Such opportunities are so important,’ says Tong, ‘especially at a time like this; this opportunity says to artists that they are still seen, they are still valued and that their work, their voice and their offerings still have a place in the world.’

Hoy agrees: ‘programs like this are incredibly vital because they give writers the time and space to write; a security net which lets them experiment and write ambitious plays; as well as a chance to get to know a company and its artists and to wrap their heads around the unique forces that shape programming decisions. Being a writer-in-residence helps prepare writers to write the works that we need on stage, as well as to write works that hopefully will get on our stages!’

Commissions

While the NEXT STAGE residents develop multiple play ideas and at least the first draft of a full-length work during their tenure, the primary aim of the residency is more about capacity-building and experience. Commissionees, however, are contracted to complete a single work. While the play’s production by MTC is not guaranteed, the bespoke design of NEXT STAGE gives writers the time and resources to grow their idea into a work of ambition and stage-ready excellence. The play may go on to appear at MTC or for another company nationally or internationally.

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2019 NEXT STAGE Residents Phillip Kavanagh, Andrea James and Elise Esther Hearst all received commissions for new works. Photo: James Henry

Andrea James received a NEXT STAGE writer-in-residence place last year, affording her the time to dive headlong into the ‘archival material and oral stories’ about the urban legend at the heart of her work-in-progress, The Black Woman of Gippsland. At the same time, her play Sunshine Super Girl was programmed into MTC’s 2020 mainstage season. It was a blow, of course, to not be able to premiere Sunshine Super Girl in Melbourne – happily, it was recently able to be staged to strong reviews in Griffith, NSW – but receiving a NEXT STAGE commission to bring The Black Woman of Gippsland to fruition took some of the sting out of the year for James.

With the commission offering her both the financial and dramaturgical support to finish the play, she’s been ‘relishing the opportunity to bring a current First Nations perspective to a historical series of events that would otherwise lurk untold.’

This is especially significant now that ‘everything around us has stalled, been postponed or cancelled. Social distancing has made the intimate work that we do with each other and for audiences almost impossible.’ Having a NEXT STAGE commission, therefore, allows James to keep her hopes and dreams alive. ‘Although the stages are dark, I feel so lucky to be able to still create and write at home and on country. We know this is not forever and the commission has enabled me to continue to think big, dream big and to continue to take artistic risks despite the challenges and unknowns around us.’

 

‘What if Elise’s family Christmas, but A Christmas Carol?’

 

Like James, Phillip Kavanagh and Elise Esther Hearst were NEXT STAGE writers-in-residence last year. Through the program, they not only worked on their writing projects, they also became firm friends. As they worked together, shared ideas and made each other laugh, an idea for a new play formed almost by accident.

Hearst, who is Jewish, was hosting her first extended family Christmas and she turned to Kavanagh for advice: ‘Do I hide my menorahs? Do I have to feed them ham?’ One night, Kavanagh woke up and wrote a note on his phone that was basically ‘What if Elise’s family Christmas, but A Christmas Carol?’ He texted it to Jenni Medway, MTC’s Literary Associate, ‘half as a joke, half hoping she loved it.’ Spoiler: she loved it, and the idea developed from there. Kavanagh and Hearst pitched the play, were accepted and they are now collaborating on A Very Jewish Christmas Carol.

‘We’re just so thrilled to have this opportunity to work together, especially in a time when so many of us have been forced into isolation,’ they note. ‘We are excited to bring to the stage a happy, joyful Christmas show, where we can all have a good laugh at ourselves and (respectfully) each other.’

 

‘I plan on taking [this opportunity] by the short and curlies!’

 

For two-time Tasmanian Aboriginal Artist of the Year Nathan Maynard, the significance of having a NEXT STAGE commission is simple: it means having a chance. ‘And I plan on taking it by the short and curlies,’ he says. Motivated by the need for the world to see and hear perspectives from First Nations people, he is working on a play – with a working title of 37 – that is focused on a local footy team’s season and Adam Goodes’ story. ‘But in the guts of the play is a rude question for Australia.’

As Melbourne, and the nation, return to a semblance of their usual reality following the events of 2020, it will be important for us to ask such questions in order to build a better Australia, and we cannot do this vital work without fresh Australian stories. The plays produced by these commissioned and resident NEXT STAGE writers are part of that essential conversation. 


NEXT STAGE is made possible with the support of our Playwrights Giving Circle Donors, The Ian Potter Foundation, Naomi Milgrom Foundation, The Myer Foundation, Malcolm Robertson Foundation and The University of Melbourne.

Published on 28 October 2020

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