They come from very different backgrounds. Petrina Smith has been writing feminist science fiction for the last 20 years; Damien Millar has extensive experience in theatre as a dramaturg and director and has written mostly prose fiction. Both chose to submit their first plays to Write-Queer, a competition and play development initiative for lesbian/gay/queer scripts.
It was a lifesaver, exclaims Petrina Smith, on the phone from Melbourne. Smith’s play Mahal was shortlisted in the WriteQueer competition in 2001, and given a reading during the Hot-Bed series of playreadings. This year’s workshop reading continues the development of the work, both a thrill and a relief for a writer whose previous fictional forays have been about other universes.
I’m mainly interested in the cultural side of science fiction, the anthropological side if you like. So it’s not such a shift to move from that to write about another culture on Earth, said Smith.
I’d been working on Mahal for 18 months, a couple of years and I was sending it everywhere, but I don’t think it was getting read, said Smith, who notes with chagrin that Sydney has proved more responsive to her play than Melbourne.
Mahal is based on Smith’s experiences living in the Philippines in the 1980s and concerns a romance between a visiting Australian, Ally, and Laya, a Filipino activist. Ally’s in the country to liberate sex workers, but not without a certain cultural naivety. She soon discovers that her own sense of lesbian pride is not necessarily shared by her Filipino partner.
I came out around the time of radical feminism, the women’s peace movement, so it was a very intense time for feminism, explains Smith. And then going to the Philippines and encountering a women’s movement that didn’t include lesbian rights! It was a real culture shock for me and it made me really question basic premises.
Questioning the basics is also on Damien Millar’s agenda with Cop Stories. Currently dramaturg for Kiss My Fist at The Performance Space, Millar was nevertheless surprised to discover that one of his short stories defied rewriting because it was meant to be a play. He chose to submit the work to WriteQueer for somewhat different reasons than Smith.
It was part of wanting to give something to the festival, as simple and na? as that may sound, says Millar. The festival’s actually been very supportive of some of the odder things that I’ve done over the last few years. Like I’ve popped up at openings -¦ done weird performance art often involving Cold Chisel -¦ I wanted to put something into their framework.
Into the framework, but also in an attempt to shift the boundaries a little.
I wanted to contribute to a bit of a widening of that culture, explains Millar. A lot of Cop Stories is about class and is about masculinity in a way that’s a bit different to what I’ve seen in other productions.
There are dozens are more respectable gay plays that don’t have any sex or sodomy -“ this one at least has a good poking, laughs Millar.
The workshop production of Mahal runs from 26 February to 1 March at 8:15pm at the Downstairs Theatre, Seymour Theatre Centre, Chippendale. Tickets are $15 (full), $12 (Mardi Gras members) and $10 (concession). The reading of Cop Stories by Damien Millar will be held on Friday 22 February at 8:15pm. Tickets are $7.50. Bookings for Mahal or any of the Hot-Bed playreadings can be made on 9351 7940 or through Ticketek on 9266 4822.