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. 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?
I’d been thinking about some of the myths we are told about teenagers – that they're apathetic, apolitical, disinterested. The teenagers I meet are engaged, curious, angry and keen to be listened to. And actually they’re everywhere: taking the microphone at climate strikes, suing the federal government over their failure to ensure a safe future for young people, sharing themselves authentically with friends and family. I wanted to write something that rejected the idea of a teenager as simply a smelly grump sulking in their bedroom. While the stories in SLAP. BANG. KISS. are ultimately works of fiction, they reference the real world and take as their starting point the same idea – that young people are shaped by the world around them, but are also capable of doing the shaping.
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?
I don't choose a performance style before I write, or really have a preferred one. I let the play tell me what it needs. With this play it seemed to me that the best way for us to hear the characters’ stories was for them to tell us directly. I'm quite fond of art that celebrates language – I came of age as a playwright watching and reading the work of artists like Angus Cerini and Patricia Cornelius, whose use of language still inspires me. I love fast language, musical language, storytelling, and I knew that SLAP. BANG. KISS. was going to be a fast-moving and expansive story, and so the style kind of evolved around that.
Dan Giovannoni during a play reading at MPavilion in 2018. Photo: Sarah Walker.
How would you describe your writing process for this play?
There were a few things I knew pretty early on that guided the writing process. I knew the characters – I knew it was about someone who stood up to a figure of authority, someone who survived a school shooting, and someone 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 that went viral on social media, and how that happened, how small moments captured peoples’ attention. I talked to young people a lot, putting some early material in front of teenagers who offered their advice and feedback, and we had great roundtable conversations about the ideas in the play. And I re-wrote lots, with drafts guided by my dramaturgs at MTC (Chris Mead and Jenni Medway), the Education team and the production’s Director at the time, Prue Clark.
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! I met with (then) director Prue several times before the 2020 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 what the whole play looked like with the actors using Kate’s beautiful design as a kind of playground, 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 interrogated and re-drafted. During the week, I would bring in new versions of scenes most days, and we'd read them, talk about the changes I'd made and what we missed from the old versions. Then the actors would play with the text on the set, and I'd go home at night and do some more writing. Development weeks are so useful – I really relish that kind of forensic analysis of the text.
Dan Giovannoni makes notes during a development for SLAP. BANG. KISS. Photo: Melanie Sheridan.
After the initial developments in 2019 and 2020, the SLAP. BANG. KISS. team returned to MTC HQ in February this year for further creative development. How did it feel coming back to work on the play with a new director Katy Maudlin and some new cast members?
Like everything work-related in the last two years, there was lots of sadness at losing the thing that was – the original team stitched so much of themselves into the fabric of the play and I am so grateful for their work. But there was a really thrilling energy for this new thing, too. I have always wanted to work with Katy, and our new cast members brought great new questions and perspectives.
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 don’t go out of my way to insert challenges, but I also don’t shy away from a difficult-to-realise moment or image. I've never written anything that hasn’t been staged in some way – but maybe 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 the most open text I've written – there are lots of locations, dozens of characters. It’s a bit of an offer, I suppose, or a challenge, to a creative team, to create a space that can be transformed over and over. The world needs to be a big city, a suburban high school, a country town, a train, a street, a thousands-strong march, a cupboard; the actors need to be teenagers, parents, government officials, senior citizens. In that way, writing it felt like a bit of an experiment – how can I can carry my audience through this story cleanly without compromising the vision I had for the way I wanted the story to be told?
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’re inheriting a mess of broken systems and that they don’t have a say in how to fix them. Hope is something you have to work at, I think, and I'm working at it myself. That’s partly why I write for young people, I reckon – it pushes me to work against worry and fear and live with hope, to offer pathways to new thinking, to create a space where people can imagine themselves anew. 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 I wanted this 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.
The 2022 production of SLAP. BANG. KISS. directed by Katy Maudlin was developed in 2019 and 2020 under the direction of Prue Clark and with the participation of Tahlee Fereday and Artemis Ioannides.