On Writing: Patrick Pittman
Patrick Pittman is a writer, editor and radio broadcaster who loves pushing magazines to feature more about development politics. Based in Perth, he was the editor of the interview magazine Dumbo Feather and is the Melbourne correspondent for Monocle magazine and Monocle 24 radio.
Prompter is his first play, which has its premiere season at the Arts House Meat Market from 9 to 18 August.
Taking place in a “surreal newsroom studio and merging theatre, dance, performance art and digital media, Prompter explores the ethics and conflicts of today’s media, journalism and digital culture.
In our series about writers and writing, Patrick talks to Anne-Marie Peard about what it was like to create his first work for theatre, learning from playwright Stephen Sewell and how all writers should read The Paris Review.
What made you want to write this play?
I didn’t know Sam when he first approached me to collaborate on Prompter, and I’d never written theatre (that anybody had read) before. He’d heard me on Perth radio, and seen me read some of my sad short stories at a Perth spoken word night I co-organised. I had (and have) this obsession with writing in left-behind post-colonial spaces, to look at the effects of conflict, and how our understanding of these worlds is mediated. Which is pretty much what he said he wanted to do a play about, and it was going to have a teleprompter. That was the brief, and we figured out the rest from there.
How long did it take you to write/re-write it?
We’ve been working on this off and on for about four years. Now that Sam and I are on opposite sides of the country, we’ve only been getting together to work on it maybe two, three times a year. Every time we do, though, we have a tendency to kill off characters, or scenes, or plots. I think we finally got it to something we were happy to call finished just before it became a running joke amongst our friends.
What was it like having Stephen Sewell as a writing consultant?
Stephen was brutal, honest, and encouraging. He could clearly tell I was an amateur at this theatre game, but never patronised, and got deep inside the world of the play with Sam and me. I was as thrilled by what he didn’t like as what he did, and it was a rare privilege to get such a crash course in the art, spending day after day drawing elaborate plans together on the walls of Sam’s studio.
As a journalist, what led you to play writing?
I was approached to work on this; my long-held desire to write for the stage being something I’d pretty much kept to myself. But my shelves have always been stacked with theatre, from Beckett to Brecht, and Shepard to Sewell. You’d often find me, while trying to figure out in my earlier years what it meant to be a writer, poring over David Mamet’s various treatise on the subject. I love the risk of the stage and, as I’ve learnt over the past four years, I love the capacity to throw out the rules of representation and narrative and instead focus on engaging with an audience on a completely different level. Theatre is the best!
How are journalism and play writing similar?
Well it’s all storytelling, isn’t it? I’m not a news journalist, I don’t do much in the way of straight reporting. I wish I had those skills, but I figured out pretty early on that that’s a different breed of person, and so I merely admire them from afar. My work outside of radio has been a fair bit slower: feature writing, long languid 20-page interviews and that kind of thing. But for me, in whatever I’m doing, I’m just trying to tell stories about how I think the world works. Sometimes that’s flying to a developing country to write about its economic policies and interview a head of state. Sometimes it’s writing about Australian food politics and speaking to farmers. Other times, it’s sitting in a dark room with headphones on trying to rewrite lines of dialogue. That’s been my past couple of weeks, and somehow it all fits together.
This work seems to be inspired by the explosion of social media. What’s something that you love about social media?
Instant connection to writers and creators and politicians and activists and heroes and villains. Foraging through the tangled webs of conversation, sometimes just watching them fly by, without participating, can be invigorating.
What’s something that you hate about social media?
Hating on social media seems like a waste of energy. I am deeply ambivalent towards the slacktivist tendencies it encourages in people, and don’t have much time for protest by hashtag. But, it’s had more profound social and political impact than we could have possibly imagined, so I don’t think there’s much point in harping on that. If the play has anything to say about social media, it’s not that it’s “good” or “bad”, it’s to look at how all of these different modes of communicating we have at our disposal shape a story and shape our selves.
What’s it like collaborating with your director and co-writer Sam Fox?
We didn’t know each other at all when we started out, but we’ve developed remarkable collaborative rhythms over the years. Put the two of us in a room for even half a day and we’ll be off building whole new worlds. We often passionately disagree (one of us likes to be more didactic than the other!), but from those arguments, some of the best stuff has come.
Who wins if you disagree?
I can’t think of a single disagreement that wasn’t somehow mediated to something that was the best of both points of view. Maybe that’s my time chairing boards that makes me think that way. That said, Sam has probably changed the script entirely during rehearsals in some kind of final victory over my opinions.
Apart from this play, what other writing of yours are you most proud of?
It’s not one a lot of people have read, but I think a piece I wrote for a friend’s magazine, Stop, Drop and Roll, a few years back, “The Government Game”, would have to be a candidate. It’s the only time I’ve written properly about my own family heritage, on an abandoned island off of Newfoundland. One day, I’ll write a lot more about this, but I felt it was important to at least start to tell the sad story of its resettlement.
What playwright do you read when you need inspiration?
You probably won’t pick much of it up in this play, but I think I’d have to say Sam Shepard. Somewhere in the vast space between Buried Child and The Tooth of Crime, you’ll find me curled up and cosy.
Any hints to over come writer’s block?
Refuse to accept that it exists, for a start. Don’t bother with internet blocking software; if your mind is wandering and you want to read Buzzfeed lists, just do it. The energy will come when it comes. But in the end, try to write every day. And when deadline looms, strap on that great pair of headphones you spent too much money on and fill your ears with either Max Richter (if you want sad and mournful and beautiful undertones) or Fuck Buttons (if you just want to write more efficiently than you’ve ever written before). Also, stop trying to write in Word. And, when trying to figure out how to make things work, just go read any one of The Paris Review’s marvellously craft-focussed interviews on writing from over the years, and figure out how somebody better than you does it. I particularly recommend Joan Didion’s, but Gay Talese’s advice on when to wear a tracksuit is also worthwhile.
Do you ever hand write or is everything on screen?
I was born with the kind of hand tremor that makes everybody think I’m all nerves, all the time. As a result, my handwriting is illegible even to me. I write on screen, almost exclusively using the beautiful minimalist Mac writing app Ulysses, which removes all of the dreck and the clutter from the process and lets you focus on words, words, and words. I’ve found the Fountain format incredibly liberating for script work – it’s let me stay in my plain text editors and not have to go anywhere near the Word and Final Draft beasts.
How does it feel when you’re sitting in a theatre audience watching your play?
I’ll tell you in August!
Who do you go to for feedback about your writing?
My wife, Josephine Rowe, is a phenomenally talented fiction writer. She knows more instinctively about how to write than I will learn in this life time, and I happen to believe I’m okay at it. She makes me a better writer every day.
Do you think actors and directors should be able to change something you’ve written? (Is the playwright always right?)
Yes. The best part of this work has been developing it in collaboration with not only Sam but also the actors. We built this work together, and just as I’m happy for a magazine editor to make changes to my work, I’m happy for anything that makes something better. If you make it worse, though – run.
What’s your advice on taking criticism?
Well, many years back, in the street press era of my glittering career, I used to review theatre. One time, I had to review a show when I was the only audience member, and they knew I was the critic. They stopped at the intermission and asked me if I’d like them to go on. After that, I just couldn’t review another thing – except movies, because they’re all far away and magical. Once in Perth, it is rumoured in rock and roll lore, a band looked into taking out a hit on me.
But, as I would be advised to remind myself when the reviews come in for Prompter, when I was negative, even when I was brutal, it was only because I saw potential and knew the people involved could do better. That band went on to be one of my favourites. There are critics out there who are just mean, sure, but you can ignore them. The ones you shouldn’t ignore are the ones who have something to say; a good writer is always learning how to be better. That’s a project that’s never finished.
Arts House, Meat Market