Author talks – Yve Blake and Ally Burnham
This resource is part of a suite of ‘in conversation’ events with authors, hosted by the English Curriculum Team through the English Statewide Staffroom. In these sessions, the authors engage in a dialogue with each other and the English Curriculum team about their works, including their crafting processes, inspirations and reception. These sessions are recorded and accessible here for viewing.
Audience: Stage 4, 5 and 6 teachers
Watch 'Author talks – Yve Blake and Ally Burnham' (1:29:05)
(Duration: 1 hour 29 minutes 05 seconds)
Speaker 1: First off Yve. She is an award-winning Australian writer, namely of screen scripts, music and plays. In 2020, Yve won the Australian writers guild award for music theatre for her musical Fan Girls, as many of you may have seen, which came to Sydney in 2019 and we've told it's coming, we've just been told it's coming back, so keep an eye out for that.
Then this musical also won the Matilda award for best musical or cabaret and the Sydney theatre award for Best main stage musical. In addition to these accolades, Yve has been the winner of the inaugural Rebel Wilson theatre maker scholarship from the Australian Theatre for Young People. The Roundhouse visualized audio fund and the Playwriting Australia's kicking down the door competition and these are just to name a few. She's also written the play Sugar, Sugar, which premiered in Melbourne and her monologue Prince Willy has been published by Currency Press.
I'd like to start your thinking about Yve by sharing a quote from Yve herself, which I think sums up her writing and how it has impacted on our students, “I'm obsessed with making teenagers feel at home in arts venues. In Sydney I've held positions on youth advisory committees at Sydney Theatre Company and Griffith Theatre Company and co-founded youth panels at the Australian Theatre for Young People and the Sydney Opera House.”
Yve thank you for taking time out of your schedule to join us today. We are delighted that you could be here with us, and we know that teachers will find the discussion particularly supportive of students engaging in English Extension 2 and Drama.
On to our second guest, Ally Burnham. She is an Australian writer’s guild award nominee with her screenplay Unsound which was considered for Best original feature at the 2020 awards. It is a romantic drama and the film won Best Australian feature at the 2020 Melbourne Queer Film Festival. It won Best fiction feature film at the 2020 ATEM Awards, and teachers will be very familiar with ATEM, and was nominated for Best indie feature at the 2020 AACTA Awards. A NIDA graduate, Ally is a full-time freelance screenwriter, script editor and author under her business name, Fawcett Fictions.
Ally is the lead writer on the multi-media franchise Metropius – now, just tell me if I've said that one wrong – produced by 18 Degrees, and in 2019, the project received POC funding from Screen Queensland and in 2021 received funding from Epic Games. Further collaborating with 18 Degrees, Ally shares a writing credit on the comedy heist feature film Nice Package. Writing for television, Ally has collaborated on projects for CJZ and assisted on projects for Essential Media and Blackfella Films in 2017. In 2016, developing for CJZ, Sweet Jane was a recipient of Screen Australia's gender matters initiative. And the list goes on, Ally is also a writer of novels, and in 2020, she received a residency fellowship from Veruna House.
So, it's pretty cool. We've got some very multi, multi, talented artists with us today and hopefully this will contribute to a particularly engaging conversation. So, let's kick off.
So, Yve, start with you first in a chicken and egg scenario. What comes first when you are writing a play, the audience or the idea?
Yve Blake: And really it's an interesting question for me right, because usually what will happen when I have an idea for something is there will be something that keeps me up at night, something I'm obsessed with, an image I can't get out of my head. But in order to commit and to turn it into a work, I need the why. I need to know why I'm going to do it and why I'm going to see it through to the end. Because I love to remind people. Fan Girls took 5 years to write. And, you know, this musical continues to tour, and I continue to work on it. So, you really need to have a core reason of why you're going to do it.
And with fangirls, the early image for me was, you know, why is it that a young girl screaming her lungs out at a Justin Bieber concert might be described as desperate, embarrassing, pathetic, crazy, insane, but the same image of a young man screaming his lungs out at a sporting match might be described as loyal, passionate, devoted. So, that was that was the idea that that sparked it all.
But the reason that I committed to writing this huge musical with 23 songs in it, that took more time than I ever imagined, was I knew I had to make it for my 14-year-old self when I had to make a show that teenagers would come to and they would feel like it's their house and they had a right to be there and I wanted to make something where people could scream their lungs out and teenagers could feel at home. But every generation who came to see it could remember what it was like to be a teenager. So, I think they kind of go hand in hand.
Speaker 1: Fantastic, thank you. And I do love that image of the teenage girls screaming their lungs out and the teenage boys screaming their lungs out because ultimately it is about joy and excitement and celebration and it's so important to value that. Ally, how does that apply to you in the land of the screenplay?
Ally Burnham: Yeah, no. One of my favourite sayings, I think I'm stealing it from Neil Gaiman, but he always talks about how you can write the first draft for yourself, just so you know the story, you can get it out. But then the second draft is writing it for your audience. and especially at the end of the day, film can be incredibly budget driven and economic driven. So, you're constantly thinking about your target audience. Who's going to tune in and watch this? So, yeah, it's incredibly important that, I've lost my train of thought I'm sorry, I'm so nervous.
But yeah, no, I totally love what Yve was saying about the why. Especially I kept putting myself in my younger, my youngest shoes when I was doing English Extension 2, and it was kind of my first opportunity to really like write something big. And I remember getting really caught up in like, “ooh, the plot, I'm going to plot it out just to kind of prove that I can go through the nuts and bolts of it.”
But it took me a long time to interrogate the why of the story, as Yve was saying, kind of like, Well, now why is this important to me? And then why should an audience care? So, like as a writer, I can prove to myself I can write this thing and that's exciting, but that that next step of writing it for the audience, creating a commercial product or something, that at the end of the day is ultimately going to entertain someone is just as crucial.
Speaker 1: I might just build on that, if that's okay, and link to Unsound because it is an intersectional story and it gives characters who are often unrepresented, authentic and impactful screen time and space. I thought it was a really striking and powerful piece. Though to to explore more the way that your characters are growing and they're figuring themselves out with this beautiful, feel good energy.
How did that composition come together and what role did that underlying message you wanted to convey play?
Ally Burnham: Yeah, Unsound was kind of a knee jerk reaction to the zeitgeist a little bit, especially in queer stories where we're reaching this revolution, where it it's celebration and no longer focusing on representation of misery. So, by targeting a younger audience that emotion that we wanted, this to be a celebration, something positive, a discovery was incredibly crucial to guiding the entire project.
So, there are so many great films doing it now so we can't claim Unsound is the only one that's done it. But when we're in early development that it was just like, great, we've kind of had that era of storytelling we're now ready to move into like what's, what's the next step?
And yeah, especially to speak to a younger audience, we didn't want to tell a story of misery, we're like no, this is something we want to celebrate. It's it's going to be a positive thing and we wanted to tell the version of the story that hadn't really been told before
Unsound ultimately kind of has a bittersweet ending. We steered clear of both the misery and the Disney ending. We wanted to do something that was, these characters didn't complete each other by coming together in a romance, but by the intersection of their lives they were able to learn and grow and go on to who they were meant to be.
Speaker 1: Beautiful.
And this is this next question actually is going to build nicely on what you were just talking about then, but also, I guess a practical application for engaging in in creative composition in this way. And this is a question for the 2 of you what activities really help you in the creative process? You know, for Yve, for you Yve, you know, be it staging a play, writing, writing the script, what really gets you in the zone and and helps you focus and pump out your work.
Yve Blake: I, I have a really specific answer to this. People ask me, you know, how do you, how do you start writing? You know, like, how do you get to be a writer? And I, I like to say, like, I still struggle every single day. The only way that I do anything is by trapping myself. So, these are my traps that I use. I discovered a website called The Most Dangerous Writing App just Google that.
It's really simple. It's got a text box and you set a timer. So, 5 minutes, 10, 15 or a word count, and you have to keep typing until you hit either the time or the amount of words. And if you stop for more than 5 seconds, it deletes everything. And it's an incredible tool because you can't hesitate, stare out the window for 8 seconds and think like, “Oh, I've got no good ideas.” You just have to keep going you have to get out of your own way and that is how I write truly everything. That hasn't changed by having any kind of success. So, I use that.
I put my phone, I turn my phone off, I put it in a different room. I give my social media account passwords to my best friends and I say, You can't give this back to me until I’ve done a certain amount of work.
I guess what I'm trying to say is like, it turns out all the rumours are true. Writing really is just showing up. and you don't have to find the willpower yourself, you can use crutches to find it. I never have the willpower. And those are my tips. Yeah, like use, use handrails, get other people to force you to do it. It is hard.
Ally Burnham: Yeah, no, I have a very similar philosophy. So, I do a little bit of teaching at night at open and I always start my first lesson talking about one of the most valuable lessons I was ever taught was about like the science of creativity and how the brain functions when it's being creative and the whole idea is to dispel the myth that only certain people are creative people. And even then, creativity is only something that like it's lightning strikes every now and then.
My my personal philosophy is that creativity is a muscle that you can train, just like lifting weights and a few strategies I use to train this creativity muscle is like auto-writing exercises. So, it's very similar to what Yve just said. It's this idea that, I don't quite, I know the app she's talking about but I don't quite use it because, I don't quite hate myself that much. But it is the idea that you're just meant to keep writing and writing and you're not meant to stop and think and you're not meant to read back what you're writing. You've just got to go plod forward and forward and forward and forward.
And I tell my students that even if you need to write a sentence being like, I don't know what to write next, you're just you're just it's the auto writing of putting thoughts onto the page and it's moving that muscle until you get back into it and never reading it back until like the timer is set.
But yeah, I, the other thing I like to say in terms of tools is when you're looking at the brain patterns of when you're creative, it's, you have like your everyday mode, say that's in the middle, and then high creativity is like, like they’ve measured the wavelengths of what the brain looks like. I's like quite high, but it's very difficult, difficult to go from middle to high. What happens is the brain activity kind of sits down in a bit of a lull before it's able to shoot back up.
So, we've kind of named this dip down like “the lull”, and you can encourage the lull by getting bored. It's this idea that your best ideas come in the moments just before sleep or if you're in the shower or when you're driving. I don't know if people relate to that. I know mine personally is like menial tasks, like doing the dishes. Driving is a big one for me, so it's when your brain activity has dipped, then suddenly it shoots up and then suddenly you're getting all these ideas at the world's most inconvenient time.
So, that's kind of like the science behind what your brain is doing so you can find ways to trick yourself into the dip down if you need to get into the high creativity tasks. So, if going for walks is great for some people, but if you have other ways of getting bored, that's a really good way to get at getting into the zone as well.
Speaker 1: I love that. That leads me to think about the, and well, the prevalence of the expression, “sleeping on it” in lots of languages all across the world because the idea that you have to take that time to think and allow your brain to process and as you said, get bored, relax, tune out so that you can then bring in those great ideas.
Ally Burnham: Rumination is incredibly important. So, even when I'm working on a schedule to deadlines, I have to try and schedule in rumination time, which is literally doing something else and it's so hard to justify to employers being like, well, technically I could do this in 2 days, but if you give me 4 days, you're going to have a better product because you've given me time to ruminate and do other things and then I come back to it and I'm like, “Oh, I can fix it.” So, you just need that background noise. Like your brain's working on it, even when it's not in the frontal lobe.
Speaker 1: I do love that. I think I'm going to start scheduling in rumination time.
Ally Burnham: And charging for it.
Speaker 1: So, Ally, as a writer of prose fiction as well, how does the creative process differ between the forms?
Ally Burnham: Yeah, I would say the creativity itself is the same, but I do way more planning for screenwriting. So, screenwriting you have less pages, you have less words, and when movies cost the same as hospitals, you really need to justify everything you're putting on the page, right? You've got to, everything is budget. So, I’ve got to plan, plan, plan. Plan on my wall here. I've got all these sticky notes right now that I know the story inside and out before I sit down and even write it.
So, outlining itself is a creative, it's like a creative process, but the actual execution of the writing isn't as creative. Well, my prose is kind of my personal outlet because I know screenwriting can feel more like playing with Legos. My prose writing is more what actually feels like writing because I'm just like, well, I'm just going to sit at a keyboard and see what happens for a little bit. And just by the nature of novels, you need to produce more words anyway so you may as well come up with a thousand that might be crap that you'll cut later, but you are rewarded for just generating more stuff, while in screenplay not so much, you're rewarded for more tight, precise key words and keeping it short and simple.
Yve, on that note, and you're also an actress, you know, you were the star in Fan Girls. How does your preparation for an activity, so do you have any activities that help you get in the acting zone as opposed to the playwright zone?
Speaker 1: Wow, for me, that's a really interesting question, right? Because I was, I was in the original cast of Fan Girls and it was very a one and done experience for me.
I was very much probably like, writing is way more in my comfort zone because yeah, it was a completely different practice. Right, being particularly acting on stage, you have to every single night hit your mark and once you said your line, no matter how you said it, that's how you said it that night. Whereas writing you get constantly edit and change stuff and you know, writing was so physical.
I had to warm up for hours before I went on stage, and I had to kind of get my body ready. And what I frankly love about being a writer is I can sit in the cafe all day and moderate myself and drink cappuccinos and like, why would I want any other job? So, I don't know that I'm the best person to ask about that.
But what I will say is I wish someone had told me when I was a teenager just how exhausting being an actor was. It always looks so glamorous to me and like you get to wear fancy dresses, right? And like, everyone cares who you’re dating and that seemed so exciting when I was a teenager. But now as an adult, all my friends who are actors are just miserable. So, I mean, that's, this is not an answer to your question at all, it’s just, that's how I feel.
Speaker 1: I think it's important to be aware of how exhausting a profession is. And and, my gosh, the preparation that is involved because, you know, acting is often seen as the, you know, the glitz and glamor without the hard work that goes behind it.
Yve Blake: Totally, and put it this way, as a writer, you know, I would write like all these emotionally torturous scenes for my lead actress, and then when I had to do it, I'd wake up with eyebrow cramps from, like, pretending to cry. I just wish someone had told me as a teenager, like, do you really want a job where you get eyebrow cramps? Anyway, that's all I have to say.
Speaker 1: Beware of the eyebrow cramp.
Yve Blake: Yeah.
Speaker 1: Fantastic. So, thinking about what makes, and you've already touched on a few of these things already, which is really, really lovely and it's important for students to think about this as well, but Yve let's just let's start with you. What makes a play script a unique form for you? And what does it do that a poem, or a novel can't?
Yve Blake: Wow. What I think is really interesting, right, is like when I read a play, it's really exciting because in my head I'm casting it and I'm imagining the design and, as an audience member like, or a reader rather, I am so creatively engaged in completing the other part of that vision.
I guess it's also true of a novel, but it's really exciting and like in the stage directions, you can put these provocations like in Fan Girls, I think there's a stage direction, like the internet explodes on stage, suddenly we are swimming in tweets.
You can put these provocations on the page that really invite your reader or the artists who are going to animate the production to meet you creatively. You put an offer down and you say, “Hey, this is a dare. What are you going to bring to the table?” and I think that's really exciting.
And I think it's something when I was a younger writer, I didn't understand as much, like I’d be very prescriptive rather than, say, we’re swimming in tweets I’d be like, all right, so on the left-hand side of stage, this is going to happen and it's going to move in at this pace and then someone's going to move this eyebrow. So, yeah, that's what I would say to students like what’s kind of fun about writing plays is sometimes you can put impossible stage directions in an alley.
Ally, you would understand this because I know that you're a playwright too but yeah, that's half of what I do now is just put down provocations to go, ah well, good luck.
Ally Burnham: Yeah, no. Screenwriting is incredibly similar. I like to think of it as so, the script is a blueprint. It is a working document that you use to communicate with the other heads of departments so it's not my place to tell the costume designer how to do their job.
I've just got to put enough on the page to inspire them to then go away. So, I'm not going to say this character's wearing a blue denim jacket and a bandana, but I'm going to maybe describe them as like skater boy chic and then the designer could go, “Gotcha, I'm going to go away” and do their job.
Or I'll spend one sentence kind of just describing a beautiful landscape, maybe with more emotive language, rather than saying, “There's a river here and a tree here” I'll just maybe just describe the mood of the place and then the location scout can be like, “Ah, I've got 3 beautiful river vistas on speed dial, I'll go check.” It’s like, it's someone else's job to do those things and you don't want to tell them how to do it, but you can inspire, and you can like imply things.
So, directors hate being told what to do and you don't put camera directions in a screenplay. But if I'm dedicating 2 sentences to the detail on a vase, I've probably implied you need a close-up on this vase, right? And it might be for a longer cut.
So, it's just yeah, hinting and incepting ideas and kind of writing to the negative space. but yeah, never being too prescriptive is not the name of the game.
Speaker 1: Can you just add on to that? What do you mean by negative space? And what should a student who is embarking on this adventure be aware of in terms of negative space?
Ally Burnham: Yeah, I think about it a lot in terms of communicating with actors. So, in a screenplay you never put thoughts on the page. You can hint at body language and maybe facial expressions, but you're never going to say, a character feels this, because that, again, that's the actor's job. So, you're just painting a picture and that's why it's very different to my prose writing and because I kind of went screenplay first, then taught myself how to write books. One of my biggest failings was I wasn't putting thoughts on the page, and a lot of my beta readers are like, “Yeah, but what are they thinking?” and I'm like, “Isn't it obvious from their body language?” but no, it's not obvious, that there's an inherent promise in writing prose and novels that you get the thoughts, you get the thought process.
And that was just not really a toolkit I had played with before because I was so used to implying and just creating the shapes for an actor to step into and embody the rest of it. So, it was almost to my detriment, but I've since upskilled and learned how to write the actual thought and emotive process of a novel.
Speaker 1: So, just, you know, in terms of your directions for mise-en-scene, in your play scripts, what, what are the kinds of things that you are including? Are you including your technical aspects like lighting? Obviously, you're going beyond dialog, but you know, you've already mentioned a few times the things that you don't include because that's the actor or that's the director. What are the essentials, what are the, you know, the absolute must haves in a screenplay?
Ally Burnham: Yeah, you definitely want a hint that you're getting location in there, you're setting the scene, kind of how all the physical entities enter where it begins, but you don't do too much blocking, and what I mean by that is I'm not going to say, “John, you know, picks up his watch and turns his back and folds his arms, and then he moves to the other side of the room.” So, that that's the director and the actor’s playfield at that point. I can imply that if John needs to do something incredibly crucial, if hiding that watch in his pocket and no one seeing it is a story beat later, then I put it in, otherwise I won’t imply that he's interacting with the environment too much, not unless it's a story beat. That's the only way you can really justify it, is if it's moving plot along.
In terms of lighting, again, I would never specifically describe the lighting, but I would describe the mood so I can imply there in like, maybe as prescriptive as you want to be is if it's like a neon lit alleyway. But even then, you're kind of talking to, okay, it's gritty, it's dark, the vibe is kind of scary or grungy, so it's more emotive language and at the end of the day, my favourite way to think about it is screenplays are being written for people who hate to read, like a producer and a director, and even actors don't want to spend too much time looking at words. They just want to get their basic information. They want to get the blueprint. So, when you're describing the environment, you're being incredibly concise. Everything gets one sentence.
If I'm dedicating 2 sentences to one visual, that's me being like, this is incredibly important to the story, and maybe you need to, this needs to be a lingering shot. So, I'm almost starting to imply editing if I'm making my sentences too long, but otherwise, yeah, short, sharp, concise. Scripts need to be read pretty quickly.
So, Chekhov's gun definitely still applies. Very much so. No, no extemporaneous details that have no role or won't pay off in the end, it's all about including the, the essentials.
Ally Burnham: Yeah. You can probably get away with like, something that might seem like it's an extra detail. So, if I'm talking about a woman's unbuttoned coat, that might seem like a throwaway detail, but I've tried to stuff that with as much implied information that maybe she's messy, maybe she's in a hurry. She didn't get dressed properly that morning. So, it's making sure everything almost has 2 or 3 justifications to earn its place on the page.
Speaker 1: And how does that apply for you, Yve? When, when it comes to style direct stage directions, are they developed in reflection of your personal style or is there industry standard requirements or stylistic traditions that you are expected to follow?
Yve Blake: Well, it's interesting because what occurs to me is like when I think of Fan Girls which I've rewritten like a million thousand times, the early drafts I realized were me trying to pitch a vision to people to get them to want to make it. So, I'll give you an example.
You know, it might be like, okay, we're in the change rooms of a, we’re in the PE change rooms, and there's this person, they're wearing this and they're like this and this person is like this, and I'm trying to make you see where we are and the people in it and I probably would have given you like a brick paragraph and then the scene would have started, and that's me trying to like paint a picture. But then as the years have gone on, I feel like that stage direction has just become, “PE change rooms. Jules is in a foul mood” and then it begins.
And you meet Jules, Brianna and another 3 people in the change room and as they go on, I'll explain that they're going to get changed as they're talking. But I don't need to set up for you who these people are and what the space is like, because actually the text of the scene can do that and if it's not important, then I don't need to tell you. So, I guess I guess what I'm trying to say about that is I used to use stage directions as a way to show you everything I could see in my head as a writer.
And I now realize actually the dialog should be what sells you and the only thing that, also stage directions like, they slow down the pace, right? You know, if you spend 10 seconds reading stage directions, that's 10 seconds in your body that you feel the absence, absence of more text and take that angle. It's a really high paced text, it's trying to be cinematic. It's trying to go like pow, pow, pow, pow, pow. So, um, so yeah, less is more. I just agree with everything that Ally said that less is more.
Ally Burnham: I’ll, jump in with something fun that just occurred to me that might be a key way to communicate to students the difference between a play script and a screenplay is, when talking about dialog it's kind of a misconception that dialog is really important in the hierarchy of tools in a screenplay. So, in a stage it's front and centre and you've kind of got the history of the theatre is the voice was one of the most useful tools to be able to communicate story to the plebs at the back of the theatre, right?
They had to be able to project big so everyone could see and engage in the story. Film we're allowed to be a bit more subtle, minute and we have much more subtle ways of communicating meaning. So, I would encourage students that if they're making the switch from thinking about a play script to thinking about a screenplay, The toolkit you're almost using is attempting to communicate meaning through directorial choices, environmental choices, sound cues, music, lighting, body language.
Once you've exhausted every other tool to communicate meaning, I always say, then you fall on dialog last, you have that at the bottom of your hierarchy as your way of communicating dialog in a screenplay because you almost, you don't want too much talking in a screenplay, it's a last resort.
Speaker 1: Fantastic. On the note of talking, when it comes to crafting and developing your characters, what is your approach? You know, I've spoken to a few different writers now, and some of them say that they have the different voices in their heads. Other people say they have a little profile and almost write, you know, the back story of that character's entire life and then they're just showing a snippet of it.
What's your approach to crafting your characters and developing that authentic and individual voice in story for each of them? And, you know, Yve do you want to go first? And then, Ally, you can share your ideas.
Yve Blake: Yeah, I think that's a really interesting question, right. Because an early issue I find with all scripts is like, oh, does everyone sound the same? So, it helps me to make lists of different ways that people will think or ways that they might put their sentences together and why. I mean, I also I'm a composer, so rhythm's really important to me.
So, I'll give you one example. You know, in Tangled, there is this character, Rihanna who, and her journey about having to find her own voice and feel confident in everything that she says, and so in her lines, often she'll say something, and she'll go, “Oh, but also not” like, she'll apologize to herself. She has this kind of special rhythms.
And it's interesting because like a late-stage process that I'll do with all my script is just read through and just read each character at a time and read what they say and go, are they consistent? Do we get a sense of who they are?
Or, you know, maybe I'll find that in one line. A character goes, “Oh my god that’s hectic” kind of like, okay, well, is it useful for that character to say that a few times so that we really get a grip of who they are?
Yeah, it's interesting, though, I guess what I would say to students is like if you arrive at the problem like, “Oh no, all my characters sound the same” it's a pretty typical problem to have actually, especially if you've got a whole bunch of characters from the same world. So, yeah.
Ally Burnham: Yeah. I've never been able to give a satisfying answer to this question because I feel like I intuit it. It's something I have always just held myself into different characters rather naturally. For me to feel like I know a character, I need to know what they want. That's the thing I'll probably interrogate the most at the start before I start writing, and I need to know how they're going to change. And once I know those 2 things, then I'm kind of like, that's enough for me to discover the rest as I go.
And once I get to the end of a first draft, and if I am having that same problem of, they all sound I'm the same, it's usually a rather very mechanical solve for me. So, I'm going to be like, this person talks in longer sentences, this person uses longer words, this person uses clipped words. I'll go back and I'll solve it with real mechanical tools.
I won't stress about it being, oh, I've got to redraft it and find their inner voice because if I've really interrogated what they want, what their core principles and how they're going to change, that's usually enough to be able to guide me through the process.
Speaker 1: I think the fact that you 2 just spoke about language and crafting language and thinking really purposefully about the words that you choose, will just be music to so many English teachers’ ears. I was just thinking about the way that I would clip that section of the 2 of you talking and say, “See the professionals and published authors say this too!”
You know, you really highlighted the importance of thinking about language as well as syntax, you know, thinking about the grammar of the characters you know, whether it's their dialog or whether it's the, you know, the pauses in their dialog which then reflect something about them.
Ally Burnham: 100%. Yeah.
Speaker 1: Very, very cool. It's so nice when you hear, you know, you're very, very accomplished, individuals like yourself saying the same things as, you know, the humble English teacher. And that's not that's not to, you know, disregard the role of our work, but it is it is really nice to hear that, you know, you're on the same page, we know what we're talking about.
Ally Burnham: Yes. Yeah. At the end of the day, if I want my characters to sound different, it is the grammar, sentence structure, that's what I'm interrogating and finding variety and, yeah.
Yve Blake: Yeah, also, the punctuation is huge. Like for me, you know, Fan Girls is a world in which a lot of the people are teenage girls and I'm really interested in this specific lexicon of teenage girls and like, we use punctuation all the time. I would like, capitalize certain words, put a full stop after every word if someone was emphasising like, “Oh. My. God. I. Can't. Be. lieve. This is happening” and like put full stops between individual syllables. Like, there are really fun ways that you can score a sentence, like a piece of music to give a character a way that they speak. Yeah, I hope that's helpful.
Ally Burnham: Yeah, and I guess another quick example I have is the 2 manuscripts I'm working on are completely different genres. One's a YA fantasy aimed at young people, and then the others are historical fiction, probably more for adult audiences, but I've been told they have very different voices. So, then, something that happened kind of naturally, I decided as an intellectual exercise, well, I'm going to go back and look at these 2 different writings and be like, well, what's happening mechanically that's different, that's creating this effect of 2 different voices?
And it is as simple as, the YA manuscript, I'm using short sentences. The language isn't as flowery because the character is getting straight to the point constantly. In the historical fiction, because I'm trying to capture the mood of the time, the sentences are incredibly long, the word choice is more verbose and just odd lexicon choices. And that's all it is. Those mechanical tools of what I've created, “Oh, wow, they're such, they're so different. How did you write 2 different voices?” and that's the toolkit.
Speaker 1: I'm just making notes.
It's, yeah, it really is. It's fantastic to listen to you both talk about language with such passion and excitement. I wouldn't mind just detouring, just a little bit. And Yve, you are a composer as well and Fan Girls is a musical. What was that process like for you?
Yve Blake: What part of it?
Speaker 1: The musical aspect, you know, you wrote, I think you wrote all of the music, didn't you? All of the lyrics.
Yve Blake: Yeah, yeah, all of it. Yeah, for sure. Yeah. Well, what I always, always love to explain to people and not as a flex, but I don't play a single musical instrument.
I was asked to drop Year 9 music electives because I was the worst student in the cohort, and I was dragging the others down. And so, I, at the ancient age of 20 years old, after years of feeling washed up like I could never, ever make it in music, I found out that some people don't play instruments, some people just make music on their laptop.
And I spent hours watching YouTube tutorials and wrote my first song at 21.
And then, and now, I've written this whole musical with 23 songs in it, and so, you know, the process of writing the songs for Fan Girls was interesting because I was learning not only how to make music for the first time, write songs and all that stuff, but also write songs for musicals.
And it turns out that writing a song for a musical is almost identical to writing a scene in a play. You cut any line that doesn't give you any new information or really like, serve you emotionally or philosophically. Like you end up, you end up judging every single lyric by, you know, does it drive towards the overall why of the piece, the overall goal.
Yeah, and then you have this other interesting dimension, which is like if you saw a musical and you had like 4 ballads back-to-back, you'd be like, yawn, and you just, you stop feeling anything. So, you've got the pacing thing as well of making sure that things remain surprising, which is really interesting with music and making sure that you don't use the same chords over and over, but it was, it was insane.
It was insane because the process of writing a musical is like making an album and writing a play all at once and both of those things look like quite traumatizing endeavours so doing both at the same time? Good luck. But it's been so rewarding. So, I guess that's my convoluted answer to your question.
Speaker 1: Well, you have certainly done an exceptional job of that and, you know, Fan Girls is just such a beautiful uplifting thing, you know, it's an incredibly powerful piece of work. And I found it a reminder about the importance of treating each other equally, no matter our passions and interests. And, in terms of your composition process, what role, because it is a really clear and beautiful message, what role did the message you wanted to convey play in your crafting and compositional process?
Yve Blake: And firstly, thank you, that's very kind. Um, yeah, it's interesting because so I've spoken about how my process is about trapping myself and, to begin writing my lyrics for Fan Girls, I was like so scared by it because who am I to write a musical? I'm not even a musician I can’t even write songs and that's where I started. So, I would just write this long free write. And I would just write about like images or feelings.
I wanted to make something that spoke honestly about what I had felt being 14 felt like, not what TV and film told me it should feel like, but what did it actually feel like? So, I write down like all kinds of stuff, like I can feel like the back of my thighs sticking in the summer heat to like, the plastic chair in the classroom. Is that in the show? No. But I just wrote down like, what are all my memories or my specific memories? And I looked at my ‘why’ for the show, which is I want to talk about the lies that the world tells young women and asks them to believe about themselves.
And so, I would go through these pages and pages of lyrics like sometimes 20 pages, and I would just bold everything that felt the most important. And I'd put them onto one page and then I'd look at them and then I go, “Oh, wait” I mean, songs have to have a reason to be there.
So, then I would go, and I would look at the structure of the whole thing, which I would put in dot points like, “Oh, this song, this song is about not feeling at home in your own body” and I would go back to my lyrics, and I’d go, “Oh, there’s a lyrics about pimples, there's a lyric about thighs, there's a lyric about looking in the mirror”, and I would cobble them together and go, “Oh, now I have this song called ‘What If I'm Just Disgusting?’”
So, I guess I'm sharing this to say that my process was one of collage, but of constantly fearing that I didn't know what I was doing. And at no point in the process did I go like, “I got this” and I guess I'm sharing that because if, you know, if a student is attempting like a major work or putting something together and they go, “Who am I? I have no idea what I'm doing?” and Ally, I feel you’d agree, I don't know how many people would feel like they do, and it is all just a guessing game, right?
And if something becomes hard, I would say just go and focus on another corner and come back. and it's like Sudoku, you just do a little piece by piece and then suddenly you have this whole thing. Yeah, that's my answer.
Ally Burnham: Yeah, no, 100%. I feel like this is an entire industry of imposter syndrome and is kind of failing upwards and feeling like you're, yeah, you're an imposter and waiting to be called out the entire time and you're just like, “Oh, no one's noticed I don't know what I'm doing yet” but, and I always say, never judge a messy first draft and just never judge your own work, period. Don't do it. Because it's only going to get better, like for me, the magic happens in the redrafting stage, like you've got to generate content, you've got to get the clay. So, you've got clay in front of you before you can start even shaping it into anything.
So, I think I was very precious when I was a student where I'm kind of like, “Alright, this is my moment. I'm down in front of the keyboard, I've got to get it out right the first time and if I don't, I'm a failure” but it's not, it's just it's giving yourself the permission to be like, “Alright, words now exist on the page. Now I can get to work and now make something of it.”
Speaker 1: I actually wrote down “imposter syndrome is real” when Yve was talking and then that was the first thing that you talked about and it is so important for students too, and teachers to remember that too, that everyone is going to feel like that, and the magic happens in the redrafting. That's what we need to remember, and we need to preach to our students. You have to get that first one down first.
Ally Burnham: Yes, absolutely. And one of my little wisdoms I wrote down earlier was this idea that, like, a story doesn't have to be everything. I think that was a similar pressure I put on myself when I was in Year 12 as well, where I'm like, okay, this is my one chance to write like a play for Extension 2. What am I going to write? And I'm like, “It's going to have a romance thread, it's going to have a mystery thread, it's going to have the action sequence. This is going to be me flexing all my muscles to prove I can do it” and then you just get a dog's breakfast.
So, my advice to students would absolutely be like, just pick one thing, and that may seem boring at first, but just pick one thing and go deep and do it well, rather than trying to go wide and thin, because that was definitely a mistake I was making earlier on.
Speaker 1: Beautiful, and I really like what you said before Yve and I think you do this as well, Ally, in your work is exploring or debunking, you know, the lies the world tells. You know, in Yve’s case, its young women, Ally. In your case, it is the deaf community and the trans community. You know how did, and Yve, before you mentioned something about drawing on your memories, were memories involved in the exploration or the thematic development of the text? Or was it bigger and connected to the ideas explored by or presented by other people?
Yve Blake: It's really interesting for me because having written this musical Fan Girls, number one question I get is “Who are you a fan girl of?” and I’m always like no, I wasn’t’. Like, I became interested in fan girls because as a teenager I was actually judgmental of people who were really expressive about their interests because of internalized misogyny I had about like, “Oh that's embarrassing.”
And now I realize like what I'm interested in as an adult is like, why is it, that what we socially sanction as appropriate for men to do, why is that like the dominant idea of what is cool or appropriate, right? I thought that expressing enthusiasm and love for something as a young woman was inherently embarrassing because being emotional was embarrassing. So, like, that is what interested me.
But in terms of your question, like what memories do I bring to it? My memory of being a teenage girl was constantly questioning myself and suddenly becoming a teenage girl and being handed this rule book out of nowhere, that said I was in competition with everyone else and that the power that I should seek to like, attain and cultivate was one of hotness, and constantly thinking about how I looked and how people looked at me and really like just constantly undress, like I'm doubting myself.
So, I was sort of, that those memories were my muse, I hadn't gotten over it as an of adult. I’d always been like, “I want to talk about that, I want to really talk about that.” I feel like representations I see of teenage girls in media are these weird, warped versions, where 30-year-olds play teenage girls –or at least when I was growing up – in high heels with perfect skin and my experience being a teenager was, I felt like a feral rodent because I was carpeted in acne, and nothing looks like me.
And I'm going to say, I'm a cis-gendered white woman, if I felt that I wasn't represented, like there are bigger problems at hand. So, I knew I had that burning inside me and then when I realized I was wrong about fan girls, I was like, “Oh, this is a microcosm for all the ways that the world is wrong about, and does damage to our lives, to teenage girls.” So, yeah, that's so, and then I had this like amazing place that I could fuel all my memories of being in insecure teenager into, I could create a world that wasn't about my experience, I wasn't a fangirl, but was entirely informed by it.
Speaker 1: Ally is there anything that you would like to share, you know, in that, I guess in that vein?
Ally Burnham: Yeah, I guess the name of the game for Unsound was representation as well and it was this knee jerk reaction to seeing the same heteronormative, yeah, white representation in rom com specifically. It was a, it was a genre thing we were tackling, and wanting to expand it. And I like to talk about Unsound came about like a patchwork quilt in terms of anecdotes. My family members who exist in the intersection of the communities we’re representing, friends and family, and I was just the one lucky enough to be at the loom kind of thing, stitching together all these different stories I was hearing, that they were sharing with me to help improve the story.
And like, Unsound went through something ridiculous, like 30 drafts. I think I've got 30 different files on my computer at the end of the day because it was a, it's probably a process I won't repeat. I've learned from it, I outline more, but Unsound was a do it again, do it again and just every time I heard a new story or someone else spoke to me and I'm just like, okay, I'm going to do another pass, another pass.
So, I've been very grateful in that a lot of the feedback people have given Unsound is like, it feels like you've captured something authentic and it was because I welcomed in this incredibly generous resource of people that I think, who were just as eager to be like, “we need the representation, we want the voices out there can this story please get made?” So, that was kind of the groundswell we had for Unsound, which was lovely.
Speaker 1: I like, Mitchell made a comment in the chat. He works at a girls’ school, and they were so empowered by Fan Girls and didn't feel shame for enjoying what they love, and I would say that that would go for the audiences for both of your works. It is so important for young people to see themselves and their interests and their lives represented in texts so they can see not only that the composition of them is possible, but also that there is normality and support for their lives and the way they live their lives.
Ally Burnham: Yeah, representation is incredibly important to me because, you need to see that version of yourself before you can even know you could be that. So, even just me growing up, what kind of woman I want to be? You look for the role models in media, you look to movies, you look to plays, and you're like, “Oh, I didn't know I could be that. I didn't know I could be that.” So, it's just, it's like a massive core principle of why I write is I just, I adore giving that opportunity and just yeah, widening scopes.
Speaker 1: Who were your mentors or your, I guess your heroes in this area, or people who really, who either got you or you really, whose work you really connected with, that made you think, yeah, this, this is a pathway for me?
Ally Burnham: Oh, well, here we go, I could say something controversial. So, the author I loved growing up was J.K. Rowling. I think a lot of people in my generation did and then I was inspired to write a trans story. I wanted to tell my trans story and then things got weird in media with J.K Rowling, the world moved on, social issues changed, and she's now been left in the past and I kind of have this fable now of like, well, this is what inspired me, and this is what I went on and chose to do.
And as a reminder, I kind of have my Unsound poster hanging above my old Harry Potter books just to kind of remind myself of like, always trying to push the social envelope, always trying to remind myself why I do this, not to become the old, stagnant voice that's going to create more harm than good. It's always important to me to yeah, always check myself and make sure what I'm doing, yeah, is, will help and not harm, I guess.
Speaker 1: Fantastic. What about for you Yve?
Yve Blake: It's interesting, right? Because [inaudible]. I think about this amazing writer and performer called Kate Mulvany and seeing her work when I was a teenager was really formative, but it's interesting because in the musical theatre space, all of my heroes are men, and that's something that really visited on me when I was writing Fan Girls. People would say who are you inspired by? And it's like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tim Minchin.
You know I dare people, I'm like, “What's your favourite musical of all time?” And without fail, everyone always says until, until very recently with stuff like [inaudible] like everyone they’d say was written by man, directed by man, usually all white men. And you know, musical theatre is a form that for years has been this paradigm of young male genius, and it's shifting, but slowly. So, you know, that daunted me but also became rocket fuel as I was writing Fan Girls because I was like all my favourite songs sung by women in theatre, have been written by men.
So, what do I have to add? And it became this thing of like, I'm going to do this because I want to show another generation, like, you know, that women can write women, how controversial. Yeah.
Speaker 1: No, you make you make a very, very, very important point. And, you know, it is part of the reason why we like to showcase the work of Australian composers, because so often, you know, we tend to have this kind of go-to mentality and we look to England or to America or to Canada, but probably less so than the other 2 and we still have this real cultural cringe for celebrating our work. So, that is one of the little things that that we're trying to do as an English curriculum team and, you know, bringing you along and having you share your stories with students is so important.
So, thank you. On an imagining side of things, how do you imagine how something will look on stage without having actually played it out? Is that a factor in in the way that you write Yve? Or do you have a sort of a practice run, you know, trailing things? What's, what's your process there?
Yve Blake: Interesting question. Because like the specific journey with Fan Girls where they write things on the page and we did have a lot of different workshops and I found our director, Paige Rattray, quite early in the process and so she and I started fusing our brains together.
And I'll give you an example, how do I do this spoiler free, right? There is a moment in Fan Girls when someone opens the cupboard to reveal something that's like shocking and horrifying. And the director, and it was always that way, and the director, like a year before we opened, was like, “you know, I can't do that, right?” Because you know that like it's very hard to open the cupboard and everyone in the auditorium can get a good view of the cupboard. Things like the doors are – she was like, “We're not doing that, you know that, right?” And I was like, “But it's the most important moment in the show.”
And she's like, “No, no, no. We're going to we have to bring out the thing in the cupboard on wheels.” On wheels from where? Like but what I'm trying to say is like, logistical concerns do become important at some stage of playwriting. But I would offer that if you're a student and you're writing a play script, like I say, just do the provocation. Like in the version you can purchase of Fan Girls, I think it still says the cupboard because, you know, maybe someone else will stage it and they'll find a really interesting sell for that.
But yeah, it's not as though I didn't think too much about foot traffic and actually I would try not to be too burdened by that because then what you'll do is write in scene changes. You might like, write in all this logistical stuff, and actually like, I think the better version is to write a dare on the page. Write a dare, and then when it comes to stage it, try stuff, right? If you're too prescriptive on the page then it sucks out the opportunity for like, strange solutions.
And, and a contrary example is like, I wrote all these things where I didn't realize I had one extra playing 3 roles and they had an impossible number of costume changes in a short space of time and then we were in tech, and I saw this actor walk out like they were in ski gear, and I was like, “What's going on?” And what she had was nurse scrubs that tore away to a set of pyjamas, that tore away to the same exact set of nurse scrubs, because there was no way for her to get upstage and swap. So, the director just made it a gag that the actors pull her clothes away and she kept swapping characters. I'm like, I wouldn't change that for the world now. So, I would just say, write your dream version and dare people to solve it.
Speaker 1: I do love the idea of this. The zip off scrubs back to the snap jeans of the 90s, which we’re probably happy to never see again and I really like that idea of writing a dare on the page and allowing students, and that creativity flow, and have them play around with how this could be brought to life. Because that's when you have the most innovative and creative solutions is allowing everyone to collaborate.
Ally, in in terms of a play, you see the audience's reaction immediately and you get to feed off their excitement and or, the sadness at a scene. Hopefully no, no awkward moments unless it’s, you know, awkward for a purpose, but in screen, you don't get that immediate response. How do you work, how do you know if something is going to work in your screenplay? Or is that one of the risks that you take?
Ally Burnham: There are a few checks in place, so usually the first time I show it to someone else is a small creative team. So, it'll go to like, if you're lucky enough to have a producer and director you're working with, it'll be like a small table read and usually they won't read it individually, they kind of let it, it’s like, we'll do a live reading together so we can see it on its feet, and we can hear it as a group, because ultimately, we know it is something that's going to be performed.
It's not at its best when you're just reading a blank page and if, if it goes well and there's another draft up yeah, there's a series of just actor readings usually, then the next step in is bring in actors. Actually, even if they're not going to be the final cast, they're just the cast that will exist to get the script read during development and that's, and usually actors, actors are good for that.
So, at the end of a reading, there's like a little quiz process where everyone's like, “Alright, well, what was working? What wasn't working? What did you like? What felt weird?”. If they have questions for the writer, and I guess some of the best advice I was ever given is, I never have to answer those questions on the spot.
I kind of had a writing mentor being like, at those table readings, “you're allowed to sit there and say nothing and just take notes.” You don't have to be, you don't have to have all the answers because sometimes you don't, as a writer. They're like, “Why did you make that choice?” And you're like, “My brain just did a thing one day”, and it's not until months later that you're like, “Oh, that now makes thematic sense as to why I made that creative decision.”
So, it's okay to not put that pressure on yourself, to know in the early drafting stages why you're making all these decisions, even though an actor or a director will be like, “Can you justify this, please?” So, yeah. So, there is an ongoing reading process before the script is ever going to get to production, and then production happens, whatever the nuts and bolts of that is, the chaos of production, and then there will usually be test screenings of edits.
So, they say a screenplay gets written twice, it gets written on the page and then gets written in the edit again. There's going to be a series of new decisions made on what to cut if we're reshuffling order and sometimes dialogue's getting chopped and meaning can get changed. Unsound in particular was a lot of fun in that I got to, I was on set nearly every day precisely because the words were being translated from a written English into visual performed Auslan, and then in the editing stage, then we're translating Auslan back into English for the closed captioning because Auslan has its own set of grammar. It has its own inherent idioms and implied meanings.
So, so it's a literal translation process from English to Auslan back to English. So, I was quite involved in overseeing that process at every stage and just making sure that the original meaning of my English dialog somewhat, well in most cases, look, it's 95% of what is the closed captions at the end, but we kind of embraced the journey that it's going to change. It goes into the actors’ hands, meaning is going to change on the day and then we're going to embrace that in the edit.
So, but yeah, test screenings, there's usually a questionnaire during this test screening where they can be like, “What did you like? Who was your favourite character? Who did you hate? What did you hate?” It's quite a black and white questionnaire like that. The test, and that's not a professional audience. That's usually, it's just members of the public that are used for those kind of test screenings and then there's an opportunity to redo the edit before it's released to the public.
So, there should be enough eyes across it that there aren't any surprises, but it's still always special when you get to the first real screening and people are still laughing at all the right bits or people are gasping at all the right bits is still always nice and a relief.
Speaker 1: So, on the note with Auslan I am, I'm actually just picking my brain to think of other films that I have seen, that have such an important and significant presence of sign language and I'm embarrassed to say that I can't think of any.
Ally Burnham: I don't think there are many.
Speaker 1: I'm imagining you’re quite revolutionary. You know, you’re quite revolutionary in that field.
Ally Burnham: Yeah, and it was important to us that it wasn't tokenism. Like, we don't just have one character who is the deaf character who can speak Auslan, it is, you can't rip Auslan out of that story because it's inherently, it's thematically important, half the cast is speaking Auslan half the time. It's a bilingual film, and that's how important it is to the presence of that story. So, it's a no, I don't think you should be embarrassed because I honestly don't think there are many and I think the ones that do exist are indie. We've gotten lucky in that we were able to break into a Dendy Cinema run and now we're on streamers. So, yeah, it was all about, you know, breaking down doors to get that representation out there and if we have to be the first, then hopefully it's going to be incredibly easier for the deaf community to be like, bam, bam, bam, here's another, here's another, and just until it's normal and we can really embrace that part of Australian culture.
Speaker 1: Yes, the importance of embracing the multi, multiple languages, you know, both spoken and written, signed, so that students can see themselves represented, is so important.
And I'll just add again, music to a teacher's ears both of you, you know, read it, review it, and review it collaboratively. You know, what a wonderful activity. I mean, something we tell students to do all the time. But whether they do it or not, you know, maybe hearing it from famous people might help them. But that process, particularly with the English Extension 2 and Drama, would be so incredibly helpful for helping them craft their characters and, you know, take on board other people's perspectives and ideas.
So, thank you, thank you again for sharing that. And on the English Extension and the Drama course note if teachers present watching the recording are supporting students with writing the drama script, or the screenplay, or a live performance script writing, or video drama, do you have any advice that you would give those aspiring playwrights or script screenwriters? And, you know, do you have any sort of thoughts on the kinds of challenges and ways to overcome these obstacles? And I'll start with you, Ally, because you've talked about Extension 2 a couple of times already.
Ally Burnham: Yeah, I, I would absolutely encourage students just to be, again, this ties back to thinking about audience, not just writing it for yourself, but comparison titles. So, that's really big as an industry standard when you're pitching or communicating an idea, you're like, “It's this, meets this”, and that's kind of like, a bit of a running joke.
People are like, “Oh, this, meets this” but that's honestly how we pitch ideas because it's the quickest way to communicate what it is.
And but just thinking about your comparison titles and being educated on what's out there, I think, because I wasn't incredibly well read growing up. I, you know, no diss on my small country town, but I did come from a small country town, and I read what was in the school curriculum and that was pretty great. But like I had a lot of friends when I moved to the city, they came from backgrounds where I realized, “Wow, you guys were incredibly well-read from a young age”, and I didn't quite have that. That was, it was something I had to, yeah, I had to go out and find it.
So, in terms of like if I want to write a murder mystery, kind of challenging myself to be like, I need to go out there and be like, well, what's currently existing in murder mysteries? What's popular and making sure I know what's out there because, I think I was under this illusion that creativity happened in a void. Because it's like, I don't want to know what other people are doing because that will influence me and my amazing ideas. So, I'd rather not go out and be well-read.
But then I've had to come full circle as a professional and be like, no, the only way I can do something original is by being incredibly well-read and being like, okay, well, what can my personal take be? What can I do that slightly different and tweak it and be unique? So, I think identifying a failing in myself is that, I would think, I was a little narrow as a student in that I didn't go out and read as much as I could have at the time when working on my Year 12 projects.
Speaker 1: Yes, reading widely is so important. Yve.
Yve Blake: I deeply, deeply agree with that. You know, let's say you're writing a playscript, like read them and pay attention too. Because you might be like, okay, I’ve got to read plays, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg. No, like if you don't want to read old dudes, don't read old dudes. Like, find young people who are writing about topics you're interested in, find people who inspire you and if you don't like the taste of a play, read a different one.
I would say as well, like, yeah, it's really great advice to have people read your work aloud and Ally you made a great point about like, you don't have to take on all these questions. So, on that vein, this would be my advice. Number one, start before you're ready. I'm a huge procrastinator, but use traps, start before you’re ready. The first version doesn't have to be the final one.
But also, yeah like, a game changing tool for me was getting my friends to read my work aloud, which I used to find excruciating. But then I realized the trick is don't worry about how they perform it. Don't try and direct them, just let them read it so you can hear it aloud, you can shut your eyes and you can experience your work other than, as a word document.
But also, be really clear with them what feedback you do or don't want. So, now when my friends read my work. I go, “Right, you're going to read it and at the end I just want you to tell me 3 things you liked, 3 things that were good. There can be no criticism, no buts, if's, maybes.” And then I'll say, “then I'm going to ask you questions. I don't want you to tell me what you thought. I'm going to ask you specific questions.” So, I'm going to say “I'm concerned that this doesn't make sense. Did this make sense?”
And, and what, the reason that I do that is like, what can happen otherwise, is someone will read your stuff and they’ll be like, “I really thought the pink bit should be purple” and then you can suddenly feel really insecure, you can totally lose your mojo. So, what I would do is just be really protective of yourself when you first ask people to read it and people actually really appreciate being asked specific questions of the feedback that you want, because they don't want to create tension and they don't want to hurt your feelings. And, and especially the early stages, everyone is a little vulnerable baby, and I now know that about myself. So, I now know that if I'm asking someone to read my work, I'm like, I'm going to tell you exactly what I need to hear. And yeah, so I would, I would offer that to students because it's terrifying getting people to read your stuff.
Ally Burnham: Yeah, 100%. I think the only reason I'm a professional writer is when I decided to start embracing the beta reading process properly. Like, there was a while there where I’m like, “I'm just going to write this, and I'm going to write this, and I'm going to write this”, and then show it to people and hope they like, and by people I mean I'm going to go to the professionals next, but, it's now incredibly rigorous that I'm like, no, at least 7 people I know and trust. but are going to give me honest feedback and going to see it before I even deem this at a professional level before I take it out into the world. And then at the same time, as important and necessary as that is, yeah being incredibly protective of the way you're going to receive feedback for your own mental health. Now a process, I now have a routine where if I receive a 30-page document back of notes, I'm only reading 2 pages a day. I'm not reading that 30-page document in a day. So, I know my own rules and my boundaries about how much feedback I can take and when, and it takes a while to learn that stuff.
But even just encouraging students to be like, okay, just set your boundaries about how you want to receive feedback.
Yve Blake: I would also say on that, Ally, you have that really good tip of like, you don't have to answer everyone's questions. I'm not sure how this will apply to students, but one of the coolest tools I was given is like, if an artistic director comes up to you after they've seen your work in progress, or an actor, or like someone, comes and goes, “Hey, I've got, I've had an idea”, or says, “Hey, I've got a question.” What you do is you nod, and you go, “That's so interesting, let me write that down,” and all you have to do is write it down and they'll go, “Thanks, great chat.” You don't have to engage, at all, you just go, “Really? Let me write that down, thank you”.
And similarly, like, you know, if a friend's like, “Hey, I've had this idea, I feel like your main character should actually be a panda.” You don't have to fight them and be like, “Why don't you like my stuff? It's not supposed to be like that” Just like, “That’s really interesting? You know, I’ll write that down.”
Ally Burnham: Yeah, I think my go to word is “sure”. It’s what my new default word is. I don't agree, I don't say no, I'm just like, oh, sure, yeah, sure.
Mitchell has just asked in the chat; he loves the concept of the beta reading process and curious what that might look like in the classroom or faculty reading or a peer feedback culture. When you were talking, it certainly, it's not necessarily the beta reading process, but the feedback process, I kept thinking of using 2 stars and a wish with students and giving them little sentence stems. You know, you need to say 2 positive things, these are the start to those and here's one wish in response to it. So, you’re really giving them those feedback guidelines.
But Ally, do you have any sort of things to share from your teaching and classroom experience in relation to the question that Mitchell has asked about the beta reading process and how that that can look in different contexts?
Ally Burnham: Yeah. So, specifically for classroom implementation. So, the 2 ways, one, which might be for the more thicker-skinned is the “alright, we're going to do a reading of your script” and then it's more of an everyone can discuss, and as long as guidelines are set up at the start where it's going to be like, “Alright, now we're going to talk about character”, and maybe even letting the writer run it. So, the writer is like, I now have specific questions about character for the group, the way Yve was saying before, how the writer is the one who leads the discussion after a big reading.
How I've run it before is pairing off students that I know are kind of like-minded or working on similar things, so not everyone is across one person's thing. I'm like, I think these 2 students will pair off well. They swap work, go away, and read it, come back, and then I always get them to deliver their feedback face to face, not written. People are a little bit more human when they have to say their negative criticisms to someone's face rather than just typing it out, being like, I didn't like this bit.
So, when I yeah, so I do the paired swap as well and that's usually a bit more of a human process and I can go a bit deeper and I do give them templates as well, being like, alright, so I'll say like genre alright, give them a few points of feedback on genre, the things that were working and the things that could be improved.
I think the wording I used is, “Could have more of this, could have less of this,” is kind of a nice way to word it rather than saying good and bad, positive, negative.
It's like, I want more, I could have had more of this, this was great, could have had less of this, when I give them those templates.
Speaker 1: Yve, do you have anything that you would like to add to that or any strategies that have worked really well?
Yve Blake: Well, I'm taking mental notes, I'm like, that's great, that's great. I think also like phrasing things as questions, you know, invite your audience to ask you questions rather than be like, “I think you need to”, that stuff will just hurt you.
So, if they, go, “I have a question. Why does this character do that?” You know. “Why did they say this? Why did that change?”. I find that that's really useful.
Speaker 1: And I would add to that, something that we've had a lot of success with as a team and with teachers in professional learning and then some of those teachers have taken it away and used that strategy with their Stage 6 classes is a tuning protocol. And we see Zenna, if you can put a link in the chat, where there are strict guidelines and structures that you need to follow and there's time for the person who's the owner of the text to be silent and listen. There are guidelines for the feedback process and then there's time for them to ask questions, and the feedback from teachers who use that from just Stage 6 at the moment has been really, really positive on it.
And I know it worked really well for us with professional learning because as you've both said, when it's face to face and you have that time to think, but you also have that forced silence time to where you can't respond, you just have to listen. It's very challenging. I really struggle with it, but it's incredibly, incredibly rewarding.
Now on to the – sorry go for it, did you want to add anything?
Ally Burnham: It was just a small note of when I know I'm digesting notes, I will write out other people's feedback in my own words, so I won't make any decisions. So, I'm just in an absorbing phase, but I'm like, cool, here's all this feedback. And then I'm like, I'm going to type it out in my own words, so I'm no longer looking at someone else's negative feedback. Now it's me talking to myself in a different document, and then only from there I'll make the decision. I'm going to implement this one and this one. I'm like, “No, I'm not going to implement this one”. So, I do have like a step-by-step process that kind of separates it from a negative person and then it's just a discussion with myself and it just makes it a bit more healthy. It’s been good for my mental health to do it that way.
Speaker 1: And you get to then personalize and process everything that has been said and it's that deeper thinking structure too.
Ally Burnham: Yeah, yeah. It forces it, yeah.
Speaker 1: So, our final topic for today and sadly, we are running out of time and I'm hoping we haven't lost Yve, but she's just disappeared off my screen. Is what, what was the schooling educational process like for you to develop your understanding and expertise in this area? You know, what research or study did you need to do to get to the point that you are at now?
Ally Burnham: Yeah, so I came out of high school liking writing the most. It was my passion, but I decided to go to film school just because I did want to tool up in all aspects of film and I just wanted to see if I accidentally fell in love with another department, maybe costume design was my passion all along. I just kind of wanted to explore all the other parts of film. So, it was a three-year degree up in Brisbane and I really enjoyed it, and it was invaluable for learning, like, getting a base level understanding of editing, directing, cinematography, sound, so I could come out of that other side of the process being like, I now understand how all the tools in the filmmaking tool kit work.
And I think, and I still came out the other side being like, I still like writing the best. That was a fun 3 years, but writing is still what I want to aim for. What I had now was an understanding of filmmaking as an art and so now I can think about how this will edit together. How, how to interact with actors, what to give actors, and what not to give actors. So, even just yet, knowing what was in the tool kit coming out the other side of filmmaking was incredibly valuable to then specialize in screenwriting as a step too.
Yve Blake: Nice, I apologize for my internet dropping out there. My context is, I mean, I went to high school, and I became very interested in theatre. So, I began reading plays myself and I started writing little bits of plays when I was a teenager and also entering competitions and lying about my age and like being ad hoc and then when I left high school, I got into a uni in the UK to study a degree that approximately was like theatre making. But I left after a year because, I mean the course was incredible, but I had separately started networking in London and making bits of fringe theatre with people and I guess my decision was that rather than rack up a bunch of debt to a university, learning in a very hypothetical context, I decided that because of the career that I wanted, it was probably better to just have a part time job and be learning in a practical way like in front of a, with the high-stakes, with like paying audiences.
And it's interesting, yeah, and then I described how I wrote Fan Girls and I reflect that like actually most of my learning hasn't been inside of educational contexts. It's been very much about like, okay, well, how do I kind of sticky-tape an education together, like by just making stuff and trying things and a bit, yeah, a bit more fringy.
But I share it to say that I think that when I was a teenager, I assumed if you wanted to be in the arts, you needed to go to somewhere like NIDA or you needed to have an institution like, approve you and say, “Yes, you may join.” But my experience has been like with everything that's gone well for me, it's because I couldn't really get through the door, so I like broke a window and everything is on the internet. So, you know, start before you're ready.
Speaker 1: I love the fact that you're both very successful and you have both you know, you have really lovely connections with each other, but also really different and diverse journeys and contexts as well. Which leads me to my question about industry and you've both touched on it a little bit already. But Yve, we’ll continue with you. What has been your experience of the theatre industry? You've broken the window now and what, what have you, what have you learned? What would you say to a young person embarking on this journey? You know, what would you do differently and what would you do the same?
You are unfortunately on mute.
Yve Blake: Thank you.
I guess that there's 2 things that I want to say. One is that, you know, sometimes my experience, the theatre industry has been like one of despair. I've gone, wow, this is such a club. You have to know people, everyone knows everyone. Like, you know, 10 years ago, certainly it was like, well, you know, this whole industry is run by white dudes and there are these gates, and you can't get into the castle, and it's really frustrating.
And what I would tell my younger self, well what I've learned is like theatre as an art form yes, let's be frank, is largely patroned by old rich white people. But as an art form, in order to survive, it needs new voices, it needs fresh talent, and it needs people who want to put things on stage that no one has seen. So, you know, I never imagined that like, a camp poppy bloodthirsty musical about teenage girls would be of any, to anyone's commercial interest, but I was wrong.
So, I would say that. I would say, if you feel too weird, then keep going, and the other thing I would say is that in all industries there can be this paradigm of competition and you can feel like, you know, you are out there up against other artists and that is absolutely not the case. It's like, no one goes into this industry for money, so you might as well go into it for friends and relationships and to be able to do what you love with people you love.
So, I always say like, please and thank you to people and be kind. Tell people why you appreciate them. It's an extremely stressful environment and it's easy when you're stressed and scared to be ungenerous, don't do that or you won't have a career. So, that's the that's the key advice that I would give.
Ally Burnham: Yeah, no, it took me maybe 2 years when I was outside of my institution for this to click for me that people don't want to work with ideas, people want to work with people. And the moment that clicked for me, then I'm like, “Oh, that's how this game works.” Like unfortunately, it is a closed industry in the sense there aren't bulletin boards like, directors aren’t going to be like, “Seeking writer” or production companies aren't going to be like “Seeking this”. It is about knowing people, so it's all about just finding the people you work with well, and film is incredibly collaborative. It doesn't, no one person makes a film. So, I started ground floor on film sets, I had my film set specialty as a script supervisor or in A.Ds, and that's just how I met people who made films and would get talking.
And I'm like, well, ultimately, I want to be a screenwriter, I don't really want to be an A.D for the rest of my life and they're like, “Cool, are you working on anything?”, and then that's how it works, and then they're like, “Oh, I'm also into that”, and then like that's just how it all comes about. So, there is an incredibly social side of it.
Unsound came about because the producer, so she did put out a public posting, but she was looking for an on-set role. she's like, I need a script supervisor. So, I applied for – I'm new in Sydney. I don't know the film people here. I'm just going to apply for this on-set working, for free again, this is all indie stuff.
She just wanted a script supervisor. I applied for it, that production didn't end up happening. But we had that same conversation where I'm like, ultimately, I want to be a writer and she's like, “Oh, hey, I'm developing this and I need a writer. Are you interested in discussing the idea further?” And I'm like, “Hell yeah I am.”
So, 5 years of agony later, and then we had a film. I know it is great, but that's just, I don't have any more specific advice other than, you just kind of need to be willing to talk to people, get to know people and pay it forwards. The people who are mean and in it for themselves get weeded out pretty quickly, because people don't want to work with them, I think. And if you want to be a tyrant of your own work, write a book, which is what I worked out.
If I wanted to have complete creative control, I'm going to go away and make those ideas books. But if I want to work on a collaborative piece, those become my screenwriting projects.
Speaker 1: I think a few of my favourite lines from this afternoon, you know, are “Always be kind”, “Work your way into connections” and “Build relationships” and “Pay it forward”. And you know, if we can instil those values in our students and help them be courageous enough to build a creative career by working hard, by, you know, taking that step forward and trying to open the door and help, you know, foster the creation of beautiful works of art like yours, then we can say “tick”, you know, we've done a good thing as English and drama teachers.
But on that note, we our time is up. Thank you so much, Ally and Yve, for joining us today and just, you know, a huge, huge thank you for sharing your advice, your experiences and your journey in crafting and becoming 2 very successful artists. Thank you.
Ally Burnham: Thank you so much for having us.
Speaker 1: Wonderful. I will just end the meeting by letting everyone know that next year we will continue to have our 3 state-wide staffroom events each term time with our first event in Week 2 of Term One focusing on developing, you know, setting yourself up for the year. Our Week 5 event will continue to be focused on curriculum and then our Week 9 events will continue to be focused on more local writers as well as local leaders and we will dip into our head teacher roundtable and those kinds of events again. But thank you everyone for joining us.
Ally Burnham: A few people who can, again, Neil Gaiman, because he went away and he got screenwriting credits. So, his CV matched what he wanted to do at the right time.
Speaker 1: If you if you can move into the world of Neil Gaiman, that is phenomenal and is certainly worth aspiring towards.
Ally Burnham: Absolutely.
Speaker 1: This is our Australian female Neil Gaiman.
Yve Blake: This has been so much fun, now seriously, I've got to dash unfortunately but this has been a privilege and thank you so much for having me.
Speaker 1: Thank you so much, everyone. I'm going to end the meeting now, have a wonderful afternoon and a wonderful Christmas.
[End of transcript]
This session supports teachers to develop their understanding of the creative process for authors of playscripts and screenplays. The discussion will be particularly relevant for teachers of Extension 2 who are supporting students exploring script writing and sound medium (multimedia).
The discussion provides insights and strategies that can be utilised with Stages 4 and 5 when students explore the composition process behind forms such as playscripts, television series, short and feature films. This industry knowledge helps students understand the purposeful decisions made by composers. In turn, this can support the planning of writing and composing in a range of forms in the English classroom. In the discussion, Ally and Yve also touched on the industry side of the composition and creative process.
Multi-award winners Yve Blake (playwright and actress -'Fan Girls') and Ally Burnham (writer for television and film - 'Unsound', and a YA novelist).
The following structure guides the session:
- Authors biographies – why and how they compose
- The creative process
- The industry and their personal experiences
- Practical strategies to experiment with and utilise in the classroom
This accredited professional learning is connected to the domains:
- Professional engagement – Standard 6 – Engage in professional learning
- 6.2 - engage in professional learning and improve practice.