GETTING TO KNOW: EMMA GIBSON

Emma Gibson is an award-winning writer based in Canberra. She is a playwright, poet and writes about place. Her work has been staged internationally, including in Iceland, Sweden, the USA, and the UK and Ireland.

Recent work includes Bloodletting, which won the 2015 Bread and Roses Theatre Award and was produced in London. War Stories, co-written with Rob Johnston, has toured England and Ireland. Her site-specific audio tour Someplace That I Used To Know was part of Canberra’s You Are Here Festival In 2017.

Emma’s previous plays for The Street Theatre include Johnny Castellano is Mine (Canberra Critics Circle Award 2014), Widowbird and Love Cupboard. Her play The Pyjama Girl, produced by HotHouse Theatre, is published by Australian Plays.

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EMMA GIBSON TALKED WITH THE STREET BEFORE THE WORLD PREMIERE SEASON 0F TOURMALINE ON JULY 7TH AND 8TH.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BECOME A PLAYWRIGHT?

It happened by accident. I’d always been a writer and involved in theatre. I’d written a few short scripts for theatre festivals or short films along the way, but it had never occurred to me that I could become a playwright. In June 2008 (almost exactly 10 years ago) I was asked to participate in a 48-hour play generator for Playwriting Australia (PWA). Chris Mead, who was then the head of PWA, sat me down afterwards and said, ‘So, you want to become a playwright?’ and I said, ‘I can do that?’ It seems ridiculous to me now that I hadn’t figured it out earlier. Within a year, I’d had my first full-length play produced and became part of the Street Theatre’s writing program, where I began to realise that a lot of ideas that I’d had for stories were more suited for the stage.

WHAT IS THE WORK OF AN ADAPTOR?

Ultimately, an adaptor’s job is to faithfully interpret and represent a work in a different medium. It requires respect for the original work and creativity in bringing to light the story in ways that might be different than in the original text. Sometimes changes are necessary, for example to condense the story, heighten drama or reduce the number of characters. Having a story, a world and characters to work with provides the illusion that a lot of work has already been done, but the role of adapting goes beyond simply translating to another form. For a living author, an adaptation would usually require their approval, which could involve meetings and further script changes. In this case, the Estate of Randolph Stow reviewed and authorised the script.

RANDOLPH STOW IS AN AWARD-WINNING WRITER WHO LIVED AS A RECLUSE IN AUSTRALIA AND IN THE UK. WHY TOURMALINE?

Prior to reading the novel, I hadn’t heard of Randolph Stow and began reading up on him. Stow was a prodigious writer, considered one of Australia’s literary greats, alongside Patrick White and Christina Stead. He left Australia in the 1960s and to some extent, I think he faded from the literary consciousness. I found him a fascinating, enigmatic figure as I began to read more about his life and more of his work.

The context in which I read Tourmaline is part of what inspired me to adapt it. I was returning to Australia after living in England, and Stow had left Australia for England, so there was a parallel there. I spent a month in Spain during the summer heat and each day would carry a three-litre bottle of water to where I was working, which made me think about how precious water is as a resource that can easily be taken for granted. I was idly researching water divining when I found Tourmaline. I started reading it in a hot, dark room in the late afternoon and was entranced by Stow’s evocative and poetic prose. Recently I looked through my notebooks from that time and found a note to myself: Adapt Tourmaline?? Right from the first reading I thought the story was compelling and had dramatic potential. It wasn’t long before I read the novel again, with a view to adapting it for the stage.

HOW DID YOU TRANSLATE THIS AUSTRALIAN LITERARY CLASSIC INTO A DRAMATIC SCRIPT? WHAT WERE THE GUIDING PRINCIPLES?

Throughout the process I asked myself if I was being true to the novel and Stow’s intent in my treatment of the material. I analysed key events in the novel, and looked at what changed, where the conflict was, and how the actions of characters moved the story forward. Adaptations cannot include everything, so I had to make choices about what to include and what to leave out. The biggest decision I had to make was whether to use the novel’s narrator in my adaptation. In the novel, we meet a whole town, but that’s quite challenging on stage, so I focused in quite tightly on the central characters and considered the dramatic function of each character. There are some distinct character voices too, so it was important to retain those, using edited dialogue from the novel, as well as writing new dialogue.

TELL US ABOUT THE CHARACTERS IN TOURMALINE? HOW DOES YOUR STAGE ADAPTATION ALLOW US TO EXPERIENCE THEM?

In the adaptation the central character is Deborah, a young Aboriginal woman. Her partner Kestrel is the proprietor of the only pub, and therefore has a certain level of influence in the town. Kestrel’s cousin Byrne is the town troubadour and drunk. Michael Random is an enigmatic figure who arrives sunstruck and near dead in the monthly delivery truck. The first outsider to arrive to Tourmaline in living memory, Random claims he can divine for gold and water. Deborah and Byrne are enthralled by him and Kestrel loses some of his influence as Random becomes a self-styled messiah figure. I’m excited to bring these characters to the stage because I think hearing them speak is a different experience to reading the novel and hearing dialogue in your head. Using a radio-play format is about emphasising this experience, almost as though the audience is eavesdropping, which creates a greater sense of intimacy.

WHAT ARE YOU EXPLORING IN THE ADAPTATION?

The novel is rich with symbolism and imagery, with a lot of themes to draw on. What I found most powerful was the tension between man and landscape. The natural environment provides sustenance but in Tourmaline, it is also seen as a threat. A tide of red sand continues to encroach on the town and the desert yields little for the residents of Tourmaline – no gold, no water, no food – so they rely on a truck delivering supplies. The perceived barren-ness of the land is echoed in the lack of fertility – no child has been born in Tourmaline for a long time and younger people, like Deborah and Byrne cannot remember ever seeing rain. But can salvation be found in this desert landscape?

TOURMALINE SPECULATES A NEAR-FUTURE WHERE AN UNSPECIFIED APOCALYPTIC EVENT HAS OCCURRED. WHAT RELEVANCE DOES THIS EVENT HAVE TO US TODAY?

In his author’s note, Stow writes that the novel is to be imagined as taking place in the future. I think we are getting ever closer to that future. The novel hints at something having happened in the outside world but doesn’t provide detail. Tourmaline is isolated in the desert, thought long swallowed by the sand, and therefore safe from the world outside. Those reading the novel in the 1960s, may have found allusions to the Cold War or nuclear fallout. Contemporary readers may think of climate change and the water scarcity crisis that has become reality for Cape Town and before that Sao Paulo, as well as closer to home. In my reading of Tourmaline, it seems to me that what has happened in the outside world was large-scale, tragic, and human caused, and so Tourmaline can be read as a cautionary tale of the Anthropocene. One of the great strengths of the novel is the unspecified nature of that [unspecified] event. The greatest monster is the one that comes from our own imagination, after all, and Stow has left space for that.

 YOUR VISION IS TO HAVE THE PLAY PERFORMED AS A LIVE-ON STAGE RADIO PLAY, USING SOUND TO EVOKE PLACE. HOW DOES YOUR ADAPTATION EXPLORE OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH PLACE?

I’m very excited about the use of sound. I used to work in radio and I still listen to a lot of audio – radio drama, podcasts and so on. Sound and scent are powerful in conveying place and memory. I often record small snippets of audio when I am travelling so I can remember a place – it seems those memories last better than photographs. I have a recording of a street band playing in Sardinia, for example, and when I listen to it, I can still taste the lemon gelato I was eating that day. Sound can transport us, and conjure up a sense of place, taking the place of the descriptive prose in the novel. My hope is that through sound design, place will be not just the setting on which the action plays out, but a character in itself.

WHAT DOES THIS WORK ILLUMINATE ABOUT AUSTRALIA?

I’m interested in how we are shaped by and shape the environment we live in. In Australia, we can’t consider this without acknowledging the impact of colonialism. First Nations people were displaced from their country and European ideals were transplanted. Early settler narratives often considered the Australian interior as empty, barren, or in need of taming. Alongside this, the value of the land has often been seen only in economic terms – where resources can be extracted, such as gold and water. A pertinent question then is: what is my relationship with the land?

WHAT IS INSPIRING YOU IN THE PERFORMING ARTS?

I like a good narrative and text-based work is still my first love, although I also appreciate devised work, collaborations and interdisciplinary work – things that take us a little out of the ordinary. I try to see new writing as much as possible, including works in progress through The Street Theatre’s First Seen initiative. There’s a lot of vibrancy and diversity and overlap in our arts scene/s – I sometimes feel like I’m trying to plot where I fit in a series of Venn Diagrams. Delightful Venn Diagrams, of course.

WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY READING AND WATCHING?

I’ve just been re-watching the Jurassic Park films for a more blockbuster take on the man vs nature trope! I’ve been travelling, so no television, but am eager to resume the Handmaid’s Tale. I watch a lot of Nordic noir and SBS drama generally and my guilty pleasure is RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’m currently reading Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness, who was Iceland’s poet laureate, and re-reading My Brilliant Career by the ever brilliant Miles Franklin. I’ve recently finished reading Sagaland by Kari Gislason and Richard Fidler, Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver, and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.

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