I didn’t dream about becoming a writer until I was a teenager, and then I became focused on it. The theatre stuff happened when I got involved in an amateur theatre group in Queanbeyan, where I grew up. I loved that plays were so immediate and at age 16 I thought I could write one for the community hall.
The play was For God, Queen And Country and, after that, I decided I wanted to have 10 plays written and staged by the time I was 30.
I am now 27 and with seven plays produced, as well as a few others I have worked on with other people, I am almost there, but still have some work to do.
But that first play opened so many doors for me when it won the Sydney Theatre Company’s Young Playwright Award and I met director David Berthold. I have been lucky to have him as a mentor ever since.
Too many of my early plays dealt with gay sexuality. That first play was about a young gay coming out and it was really just me working a few things out.
The play Strangers In Between was when I was finally comfortable enough to allow my characters to be gay, but it was not a play about sexuality. It was more a play about a family.
I have a funny relationship going back a few years with the book of Holding The Man. I remember my boyfriend Dane reading it and I was teasing him, thinking it was some trashy gay porn by looking at its cover.
A year later, David Berthold hinted to me when we were working together at the Griffin Theatre Company about turning the book into a play, and I thought, I hope he doesn’t think I am the writer to work on that.
So it was the weekend that the pope died last year that I finally read the book, while on a bus to Queanbeyan to see my family. I then read it on the couch as my dad sat beside me watching the rugby on the TV, and then on the bus again back to Sydney.
But I could not bear to read the last chapter in public, so I waited until I got home and found Dane asleep on the couch. I lay on his lap and read the last pages, and my response was the same as most people -“ I sobbed.
But the moment I read that first page of Holding The Man, I knew it could be a play. It is an account of a life written by Tim Conigrave, a performer and theatre maker, and edited by playwright Nick Enright, so there is theatricality in it. So many scenes of the story are set around theatre, so it really seemed natural for the stage.
The honesty of Holding The Man is the most important aspect of this story. Tim does an extraordinary thing in the book by giving all the moral authority over to John. It is such a selfless act that you then trust him as a storyteller.
It has been a very strange and sad thing to get to know Tim, a man who died over a decade ago, so intimately. I have met his family, his childhood friends, teachers, theatre crowd and the people at ACON he worked with. It has been very special getting to know him so well without ever meeting him.
On the first day of rehearsals, a three-hour interview with Tim arrived from the National Library that he had recorded in 1993 when he was formulating his ideas for the book. I put off listening to it for quite a while and finally I couldn’t resist, and late one night I listened to Tim tell in his own voice the story of his life. It was very moving.
The opening night of the play, I was terrified. The Conigrave family were in the audience and I was wondering if we were giving them the acknowledgement they deserved and how they would cope with seeing their son’s story played by strangers.
They later expressed their pride for Tim and what he did. Mrs Conigrave also said our play was an extension of his life, and I was so proud to hear that.
I like to think that Holding The Man is the greatest love story in Australian literature -“ ever. I don’t really think of it as a story about sexuality, I really think of it as a love story. It is also universal as it asks why we hurt the ones we love, gay or straight.
I didn’t initially think the mission of the play was also to inform our audience about HIV, but I am thinking now maybe it is as it does prompt people to think about it -“ what is was then, our perceptions now and also our modern complacency.
It is a case of looking at that time with horror but wonder as well, and maybe just a little bit of pride at our response to it. I think it is important we look at that time in history, and particularly for my generation to learn from it.
Interview by John Burfitt
Holding The Man is on at the SBW Stables Theatre. Bookings on 1300 306 776.