Last week A Younger Theatre introduced you to the Australian Theatre for Young People’s emerging playwright programme, Fresh Ink, with the short film Bat Eyes. This week we’re interviewing Bat Eyes writer Jessica Bellamy, who tells us all about why she loves writing, how she got involved with Fresh Ink, and what it’s like to see your writing transform from stage to screen.
When did you first get involved in writing?
I’ve always been writing. I’m not one of those writers who can pinpoint that special fourteenth birthday when they realised that they were A WRITER! Making characters and telling stories has always been something I’ve been obsessed with. I used to “entertain” my family as a child by improvising a live conversation between two people and continue to extend it beyond any semblance of dramatic action, conflict or interest! So I’d be sitting there at the dinner table going “I find this salt a little too high in iodine.”
“Oh I know what you mean – the way it fizzes on the tongue.”
“Unlike pepper indeed,” and so on into the night.
Writing and playmaking has always been a way for me to share the joy, enthusiasm and confusion that are part of daily living. I go crazy and sad when I’m not doing it, so it’s probably best to keep going. For all of us.
How did you get involved with Fresh Ink?
In 2010 I studied the first full-time playwriting degree at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), run by the brilliant Jane Bodie. One of our teachers was Lachlan Philpott, who was running Fresh Ink at atyp at the time. Lachlan let me join as an intern for half a year where I learnt about working with emerging writers, writing for younger performers and audiences, and the ins and outs of a theatre company. I also got to attend National Studio as half-intern, half-extremely excited playwright, and wrote my monologue Little Love there. From there, Lachlan moved on and Dan Prichard has taken the reins of Fresh Ink, and spearheaded the very exciting Voices Project.
So how did Little Love [the original monologue that inspired Bat Eyes] come about?
Little Love was a response to a couple of impetuses chucked at us. The first: write about first love and all the feelings associated with it. The next: bring in a song you were obsessed with when you were 16. I was interested in playing with the way we define love. Is there such thing as ‘little’ love, a minute, or hour, or intense week of overwhelming feeling, only to find it slip through your fingers? I didn’t want to write the great, epic love stories of these characters; ones that I’m sure they’ll have when they’re a little bit older and wiser. I was much more interested in what that first little love felt like – and how it bleeds into their future loves.
How did the storyline and characters develop?
Little Love tells a very simple story of two young people sharing their first brief experience of love and sex. As mentioned above, we needed to bring in a song from our teenage years, which in my case was ‘Bound to Ramble’ by the John Butler Trio. I realised later I had soaked up the lyrics like some impressionable playwright sponge and incorporated the idea of “walking blindly, holding out my hands” as a way of thinking, literally and figuratively, about love and physical intimacy. Both of these characters are walking blind into something new and scary, feeling their way through it, in ways that are different but at times, quite similar. From this concept, the characters began to emerge. I like writing teenage voices, and I was particularly interested in writing a teenage boy’s voice – one that realises it’s time to start growing up, and wants to do so, but also has a fair way to go before being considered a ‘man’. What happens when physical intimacy comes before emotional intimacy? Does it force us to grow up?
How did Little Love then become Bat Eyes?
Dan Prichard approached me late last year about the fact that Fresh Ink was spearheading The Voices Project, a chance to create multi-platform work by young writers. I got to meet Damien Power, a very talented and also very nice filmmaker, and we started talking about how to turn a monologue into a film. I have only written one short film before, but it was a story from scratch, rather than an adaptation of a monologue. The very interior and cerebral style of a monologue needed to be blasted open into a much richer world. At the same time, we couldn’t get distracted by all of the intricacies of this wider world. We needed to hone in on one concept, one that could drive this adaptation and keep us focused on what we were trying to do. We decided on the idea of ‘beauty’. What is beautiful when you’re blind? How do we talk about beauty in ways that don’t evoke sight? How do we remember this beauty, if not in an image? Once we had this realisation, it all started to make sense.
Can you describe the process of working with Damien?
Damien is very creative, yet also very meticulous. At first I found this way of thinking quite different to my previous work. As a theatre writer, I’m usually content to write “Living room – Morning – two Schnauzers enter” at the top of a page, and let the dialogue set up everything else. While I’ve been lucky to work with very respectful stage directors in my time, it’s an oft-touted cliché that the first time directors get a new play, they cross out all the stage directions and put their own ones in while rehearsing. In film, it turns out directors REALLY read stage directions! As do designers, and continuity experts, and editors, and sound technicians, and cinematographers and all the other 4000 people in a film shoot. You have a chance to shape every minor detail of your film – or at least to set up an atmosphere so thick and clear that even if it’s realised in a slightly different way, the emotional effect is the same. This was exciting to work with.
What were the challenges and surprises for you?
It was difficult to cut out things I really liked in the script, but that I knew in my heart of hearts weren’t going to work on film. I really needed to move away from the internal nature of the monologue, and think a lot more about the stuff outside Adam’s head. His school, his friends, the sort of persona he puts on during a normal day. It was nice to explode the world open a bit more.
And finally you see Bat Eyes in the flesh. How was it to see Mia playing the role?
Mia [Morrissey] is wonderful. As is Ben [James]. They both embodied so beautifully the heart of these characters. They’re obviously both quite close to the ages of the characters, so can find an access point there, but they also tapped into a truth and a connection to my words, which I was really grateful for.
You’ve also won the Rodney Seaborn Playwrights’ Award. What did that mean for you?
It was very exciting to win the Rodney Seaborn Playwrights’ Award, particularly because the theme of the award is “plays with a positive message”. This sort of thing gets me pretty excited – theatre that is trying to push people forward into a sense of love, ownership and agency towards their world. From there, we have the courage to try to improve it. I’d love to use theatre to make people care more about the world, to recognise the beauty in it, and to change their behaviour to be kinder to the earth and its inhabitants. On that note, my next play will be called Why Vegetarians Are Sexy, and How You Can Be One Too. (I’m kinda joking, but I’m also kinda not joking!)
Next week: Jessica Bellamy writes a blog for A Younger Theatre readers
Image 1: Mia Morrissey, Jessica Bellamy and Ben James
Image 2 and 3: Mia Morrissey and Ben James in Bat Eyes
Interview originally published here.