making art in a plague year

I’m writing a play called let bleeding girls lie. It’s about three strangers donating plasma in the same row of chairs when a terrorist attack is broadcast live through a blood donation centre in Melbourne. Two nail bombs have gone off in a stadium full of pre-teen girls. The internalised violence it triggers in these three women (played by Chanella Macri, Belinda McClory and Emily Tomlins) makes them seek safety in each other, foregoing small talk for grief-induced intimacy.

What’s this play about?

It’s about intimacy as resistance, about women overcoming strangeness to manage the threat(s) of public space. It’s also about grief and care, forming the final part of a trilogy I’ve been writing and directing since 2016. It was meant to receive its world premiere at La Mama in October of this year, but the world imploded. Instead, I’ve been working on the text with my team via Zoom, getting it ready for whenever we may be allowed back into shared space (and our art form).

This has made me think a lot about how COVID-19 is impacting our work. I’m not thinking about the slew of solo shows that are almost inevitable once/if we get out of this: “My Isolation”, “Lock Me Down”, “10 Things I Learned to Do Rather Than Sitting With My Own Thoughts”.

I’m also not thinking about the material impact – the existential crisis triggered for a craft defined by people sharing public space, when the sharing of public space is now tightly legislated and potentially lethal. 

I’m thinking about what we have become sensitive to in this new world order. There is a book that I loved as a kid that helps me here – Pamela Allen’s Mr Archimedes’ Bath. In it, Mr Archimedes’ bath always overflows, and he always has to clear up the mess, until the day he decides to find out where all the overflowing water is coming from.

Mr Archimedes’ Bath by Pamela Allen.

A short story short – he realises that the more his body sinks into the water, the more water is displaced. It’s a story about volume metrics, and I wonder if I can reverse engineer it to pinpoint these new sensitivities.

What if: COVID-19 is the body of Mr Archimedes, and we can measure it by what it’s displacing. What is the water in this analogy/tenuous thought experiment?

Cut back to the scenario for let bleeding girls lie, which occurred to my partner Julian and I at the Collins Street Blood Bank in Melbourne in May 2017. Jules was donating plasma during the first 90 minutes of the Manchester Arena Attack and we watched as hundreds of girls streamed out of the stadium, covered in shrapnel holes. I transcribed the captioned reportage from that morning, thinking of three women who may – in this scenario – bypass the conventions of small talk and reach out to each other in this moment. I wrote it in bits and pieces across the end of 2018 and throughout 2019, and we had our first creative development at Bluestone Church Arts Space in Footscray in November last year. All definitively pre-COVID.

Back when we were allowed to stand this close to each other – the let bleeding girls lie team during our Bluestone Church Arts Space development. Photo by Jack Dixon-Gunn.

Cut to May of this year and our first Zoom reading. I have not touched the script since Bluestone. November 2019 feels like a lifetime ago (instead of only 6 months). I gaze at the beloved faces of my collaborators and friends as they start to read aloud from St Kilda East, Carlton, and Pascoe Vale South. What immediately strikes me – two elements of this text have now become radically active. Previously, they were part of the work, but they were not What The Work Was About. Now, they ring out like fire alarms.  

  1. The risk of going outside

Lou:               Imagine being at your first concert and then this happens.

Juice:             Roll of the dice, isn’t it?

Lou:               I guess there’s always the risk of something like this happening if you go outside these days.

Grace:           God, is there? You’d never leave the house if you thought like that.

Lou:               (shrugs) Maybe you think it’s worth the risk.

Grace:           You can’t always think about it though /

Lou:               But it still impacts the choices you make. […]

Risk. In the “old” play, it was speaking to a) the arbitrariness of nature and our inability to control our environment, and if we are willing to succumb to or accept this; and b) the physical and emotional vulnerabilities of a minority body in public space.

But risk has a whole new meaning now. “You’d never leave the house if you thought like that” feels particularly bittersweet in Melbourne right now, when its citizens have sat or are sitting on a spectrum of lockdown that directly correlates your choice to leave the house with making yourself, your loved ones, or even complete strangers sick, perhaps terminally so.

2. The need to connect  

Think back to that first lockdown in March and the frenzy of social contact almost all of us engaged in (in this tenuous analogy I like to think of people as sharks, and a bucket of chum as the internet). Zoom calls with your family, friends, people you hadn’t spoken to since high school; offers to do groceries; offers to check in on frail neighbours or relatives; international concerts, yoga, forums and panels now streamed into our living rooms; our eyes falling out of our heads and our hearts from our sternums as our screens sucked us dry from our need to connect in some way as it became physically impossible to do so.

Chanella spoke to this in our conversation after this first read, particularly about how this played out in public space. The phenomena many of us experienced when getting our walk of the day, of counterbalancing the wide berth we gave each other in the street with the “active greeting”. There was something about needing to go so out of our usual way to physically avoid each other that we needed to remedy it by making sure we made eye contact and that we said “hello”. I know I greeted more strangers in that month than I perhaps ever had before (and it’s not uncommon for me to talk to strangers).

This is what now rings out about the opening of let bleeding girls lie. These three women, strangers to each other, spend the first 12 pages of a 61-page play (almost one fifth of the work) trying their hand at making conversation. The nail bomb hasn’t gone off yet, and they’re just three people passing an hour. But what is remarkable is the yearning in each of them for this connection. They each have their reasons for this – grief, loneliness, curiosity: a whole rainbow of desire. But that’s what pops now – the active effort of reaching out, the importance of trying to connect (however short of the mark it may fall).

So, the water here is to do with our bodies in relation to other bodies. It’s about our desire to share space and the dangers of now doing so. It’s about our fundamental need to be physically together -this is what’s displaced by the wretched body of COVID-19 getting into the bath.

To me, this is how the pandemic is impacting our art. It’s a new context – a 1-in-100-year one. It is framing new sensitivities, which are to do with foundations that are no longer there. They’ll come back, but we’re now aware that they are carpet rather than concrete.  

This online development of let bleeding girls lie has been supported by a City of Melbourne Quick Response Arts Grant. The show is scheduled for production in 2021.

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