Indigenous Writing for Television Workshop participants Anita Heiss, Paula Maling and Rima Tamou
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2004 edition of the Australian Writers' Guild magazine Storyline
Last year, the AFC's Indigenous Unit ran a workshop to encourage more Indigenous writers and producers to work in series television - both as hired guns and to create their own work. The workshop was run in three stages throughout the year comprising two workshop weeks and an attachment program.
Anita Heiss, Paula Maling and Rima Tamou tell us how it was...
More brownies on the box: Stage I - by Anita HeissI eat, I drive, I wipe my arse, and I live in the suburbs, but perhaps I am the only brown person to do so, because there sure aren't many brown faces advertising chocolate, cars or loo rolls on TV. And it seems Kooris can only aspire to live in Ramsey Street or Summer Bay. Now, if it isn't a racist real estate agent stopping us from renting or buying there, then it must be something else keeping us out of those fine geographic locations and off the screen. What's that you say, 'It's because there aren't any brown people actually writing us into scripts!' Right, the challenge has been set.
And this is why I began my passionate journey into writing for television. My first step was snaring a keen producer (Prue Adams, Oracle Pictures), then I had to write a concept document used to convince Geoffrey Atherden to be my mentor (am I the luckiest girl in the world - shit yeah!).
Next step was applying to the AFC's Indigenous Unit Series Workshop facilitated by the deadly Kelly Lefever. With much appreciation I soon received my boarding pass for my journey to TV land and with 11 other passengers on the same flight also wanting to see more blackfellas on TV (in sitcoms, presenting the news and in drama series), we took off.
The journey was remarkable. The first stage of the program was a week-long workshop held in Sydney, which helped to clarify many things for me. I don't want our roles or work to be ghettoised, but I do want real representations of who we are, PEOPLE!!! People with real lives, real aspirations, eating chocolate, having normal bodily functions (OK so we don't have to see the arse wiping, but you know what I mean), driving cars, living in houses in the city, going to school and work, and having relationships - just like every other person in Australia. And surprise surprise, we also have families. I don't know any blackfellas that live completely devoid of some family. And I hate to shatter any illusions you might have about us, but we don't actually sit around talking about land rights and invasion all the time (just most of it!). I marched for peace, I watch the way the dollar moves, I'm concerned about sun cancer too (yes, even us darkies can get it!!!).
What I'm trying to say is that for me it's about Australian TV actually presenting a mirror to society - an inclusive mirror - and at the moment it doesn't.
With these thoughts in mind and with nervous anxiety I sat in the plush surrounds of the AFC theatrette with eyes wide open (the bucket loads of guarana drinks supplied by Ms Lefever helped them stay that way!). I listened to her words of wisdom born out of many years of experience, and I sat amazed at her ability to facilitate a group of temperamental Indigenous artists having had little involvement with the Indigenous community previously.
Kelly took us through the process of plotting, developing the storylines and episode breakdowns and then asked us to write a draft episode (which was the homework that caused us all more than a little grief). Biggest tip I got from Kelly: 'Good TV writing is the art of hiding the exposition'. I'm still working on that one.
Still considering the whole exposition idea, I smiled as I got comfortable on day three to hear the words of Jimmy McGovern. This man couldn't play soccer that well, so he pulled his shirt out over his shorts to be noticed by the selectors! Did he ever think they noticed him simply because he was untidy amongst the properly attired other players? Anyway, the point of this very engaging story? Make yourself stand out girl! Send your script to the agent on fluoro pink paper, deliver it naked (or maybe not!). But find a way to make your work shine out amongst the rest. Another challenge was set, and with examples of Jimmy's work (Dockers, The Lakes, Cracker) shared generously with us, we had some idea of what great TV really is. Best tip from Jimmy: give characters emotional and moral dilemmas. That's easy I thought, write from personal experience (and there's a drama series that'll go for years!).
Jimmy was only one of the dynamic duo though, standing by his side was one Mac Gudgeon who said the writing process can easily involve playing pool, or taking a bath or a walk. Since that moment I have used every inch of procrastination legitimately as a method of 'thinking creatively'. Thank you for that tip Mac!
One of the greatest challenges of the week for me though was learning the collaborative approach to writing for TV. As a writer of books I am used to working solo. I like it that way. I have enough ideas without sitting around hearing more. It is time and finance I am short of, not creative inspiration. Simply stated, as a writer and a Leo, I wanted to be in control. Just reading this I am sure you think I would be difficult to work with. But rest easy, I do know that working in TV land means working collaboratively on developing story arcs and episode breakdowns and so on. And my own writing has improved dramatically through working with Geoffrey on my own series.
So many lessons learned, so few words permitted for this article, so I must sign off. I would like to say a huge thanks to Kelly, Jimmy, Mac and all the gang at the AFC. I left the week enthused, inspired, motivated and bursting with ideas for what is possible for me, for the rest of the mob, and for the future of Australian television. Is the bar high? Absolutely. Can we reach it? You bet we can!!
Dr Anita Heiss is the inaugural Indigenous writer in residence at Macquarie University. She is the author of five books and has just completed a novel, Not Meeting Mr Right. She is currently working on a comedy drama series, with brown and white people in it! Geoffrey Atherden is her mentor and she IS the luckiest girl in the world.
Attached to Kath and Kim: Stage II - by Paula MalingBeing part of the Australian Film Commission's Indigenous television writing workshop has brought about numerous opportunities for me. Not only in terms of developing my skills and meeting and working with international TV writers, but understanding myself and where I stand as a writer. Participating with other Indigenous writers at two workshops during 2003 helped me better understand the process of writing for television and the value of support I receive from fellow Indigenous writers.
My interest in television and film writing has always been in comedy. As far back as my high school days I can remember telling and writing funny stories. Some based on true events but mostly incidents I found funny and easily elaborated on. At the time I never thought I could make a career out of them, as I couldn't even manage to get a good grade for them. But I liked them, and they made me laugh, so I wasn't too worried about the grades.
I wrote and performed comedy sketches for theatre with Goie Wymarra in the early 90s, and this process enabled us to show our work at various festivals and Indigenous community events throughout the country.
Currently we are writing the second drafts of a 13-episode sitcom entitled Nevermind. The idea of the sitcom comes mostly from our own life experiences. We feel the location and characters we are writing about have not yet been given enough exposure on Australian television, something we manage to address in a humorous and educational manner.
So, with the encouragement and support from the AFC Indigenous Unit and the staff of ABC Television, especially Executive Producer of drama and comedy Robyn Kershaw, I was invited to be an attachment on the second series of the popular comedy program Kath & Kim, and given a job as Third Assistant Director.
The welcome I received from all cast and crew was overwhelming. Having never worked on a television set before, I found this experience unforgettable and encouraging as a writer. I marvelled and learnt so much from the very talented director Ted Emery - watching him work and interpret each script was an honour. He was one of the first to welcome me and from the start made sure that I was invited to crew meetings and that I had even eaten lunch. What a mentor eh?
All up I spent six weeks of the nine-week shoot in Melbourne, not only working as the Third Assistant Director, but also spending valuable time learning and working alongside most of the different departments.
Sitting in the edit suite listening and watching was great for me as a writer just to see the influence of editing in creating comedy. There's so much stuff you can change and enhance to heighten the comic moments.
But it wasn't only editing that caught my eye - the art department, publicity, wardrobe, make-up and the lighting guys all helped me to fully understand and appreciate their involvement and roles from script to production. For instance, the role that costume plays in comedy - so much character detail can be revealed through Kath and Kim's wardrobe. In the art department, a mocked up box of genuine 1980s brand cigarettes is going to get a laugh in a flashback scene and hit an emotional chord with the audience. The one thing that bonded all the cast and crew is that they all wanted it to be a success and were prepared to go the extra mile to find the detail that was going to make it special - tiny little things make the biggest difference.
Because I come from a radio background, I tend to focus mainly on the dialogue when I'm writing. What Kath & Kim taught me was that comedy writing is about juicing every element of every scene for laughs - not just the dialogue. 'Use every department when you're writing', I thought to myself.
The icing on the cake for me was the conversations and genuine interest in my career shown from the writers and actors of Kath & Kim, namely Gina Riley and Jane Turner. For me to talk freely to the women and ask questions about their writing made me feel confident about my own projects as they were only too happy to offer as much advice as needed. Basically they said to get the pen, get the paper and just start. It could be a minute idea but it might go somewhere. Forget the structure, forget the formula - just go for it and see where you end up. The help they gave me was more on an emotional level and a confidence level than anything else. Just have a go, you never know, just keep going…
With the help and experience I received from all the cast and crew of Kath & Kim, I now feel and know I'm heading in the right direction. Because every single one of them taught me in their own way how to work together and respect not only the scripts, but valuable roles of each person involved in the show.
Yesterday I hoped and prayed to write something as successful as Kath & Kim, but today I am lucky enough not only to hope and pray but to use my experience from my time with them to inspire and motivate myself - this is how Kath & Kim has left me feeling. A 'Knowing I can Achieve in my Writing' feeling.
I made lifelong friends, friendships I'll cherish forever and even today I keep in touch with a few of the crew members, and this I think was the most rewarding gift I received from my time in Melbourne. Friendship.
Paula Maling has worked for SBS Radio as a journalist and newsreader and Koori Radio as a program manager and journalist. She wrote and directed a short film Listen through the MetroScreen Indigenous Mentorship Program. Paula is currently developing a television series and co-writing a feature script, both with her writing partner Goie Wymarra.
Koori-oke on the Coast: Stage III - by Rima TamouWhen the opportunity to learn about writing for television series came up I pounced on it. I'm a bit of a groupie when it comes to workshops, not only because they're catered for and I get to visit some great places, but because I also get to meet people who share the same passion as me.
The third stage of the Indigenous Writing for Series Television Workshop was held over a six-day period at Bateau Bay on the central coast of New South Wales. See, I told you we got to go to new and exciting places!!! And we stayed in holiday cabins right on the beach for heavens sake! A freelancer's dream come true.
At first I wasn't very comfortable coming to the third stage of the workshop because I had been busy writing a half-hour drama and couldn't put in as much work or time into the process as I would have liked to. That's code for 'I hadn't done my homework', and therefore didn't get the bottle of bubbly offered as a prize to those who managed the task of writing the draft episode of Home and Away for our fearless leader Kelly Lefever. Shamed as I was by those who had done it, I carried myself proudly with inspiration to the workshop on the beach, determined to devour the opportunity to broaden my horizons, and I am really glad I did.
I mean, why wouldn't I? It also happened to be free!
Having been apart of other workshops I felt a certain obligation to set a bit of an example to others who might be thinking about lazing around the pool, having massages or indulging in the standard after workshop drinks. So, I set a great example of how to do all those things!! Thank goodness I remembered the most essential ingredient for any writing workshop is to have a creative work environment, so I packed a guitar and made sure we stopped at a bottle shop before checking in.
There were several objectives that had to be achieved so I knew from the outset the week was going to be intense. First, as a collective we were to develop a series to a completed bible stage. We decided to work on a series about several patients living in a psychiatric ward with the overall theme of the series, 'There's a fine line between those outside and those within'.
But as we got further into it and without the benefit of research we struggled with developing character arcs and story lines. Mainly because we had to take into account what illnesses characters were suffering from and a whole range of behavioural questions and whether they were on medication or not etc. It was challenging to say the least. Luckily Sam, one of the participants, had worked in such an institution and provided us with the day-to-day running of the place. While the rest of us all seemed to have either family members or friends we could draw on to fill in the gaps. There are even a couple of participants who thought themselves ready to be committed! Still, I think halfway through everyone realised that we really should have chosen the Footy Club as our series. I think One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest had a lot to answer for. Luckily, we had visited that bottle shop.
Pitching our own series ideas for comment and torture by the workshop facilitator Kelly Lefever, and mentors Mike Bullen and Jon Stephens, while painful, was beneficial. Before Pauline Clague, my producer, and I pitched our idea we knew we had a lot to do. And I really think that it's at those times when you think something isn't going to be useful that it really is. I'm not sure whether it's because things are so underdeveloped that the conversation runs more freely, without focus and somehow hits upon things that you really find useful. Some good ideas and suggestions came out of those discussions and we are now looking at our idea as something that has legs and a real chance on television screens.
What is great about these workshops from a learning point of view is that the mentors have been where you are. They want to help and are passionate about working with, and developing your ideas, and while it is a job for them I believe the kinds of friendships that come from these experiences are invaluable. At least they are for me.
As participants, we came from all over the country, from community organisations to bureaucracies. We had a playwright, a novelist, actors, dancers, producers, and a director or two. We even had a comedian, though she was reluctant to admit it. We all came together and wrestled with this new monster of television series writing.
The discussions flowed both within and outside the workshop and forced us to question ourselves: 'Do I really want to be a series writer, could I work as a hired gun on someone else's creation?', 'Should I just be concerned with being a writer and not cross into other areas such as direction, and is this move conflicting with my development?', 'If we developed our own series as a group that was good enough, would TV executives really be ready to put it out there?'
While the week was all about writing for TV obviously, I really think that most of the discussion occurred after Sally Riley, Kath Shelper and Nicole Timbery threw me a surprise party for my 40th birthday. There was heated debate over whose Koori-oke performance was best. Some think it was Kelly's solid performance across all genres. Others say that it was Mike's rendition of the heartthrob Ricky Martin's Livin' la Vida Loca complete with back up dancers. Personally, I think that when Jon timed his entrance to coincide with all the boys about to sing YMCA, the trophy for Best Performance was well and truly secured.
To sum up, if any of us had any doubts of whether the life of a writer, series or otherwise, could possibly be rewarding, we only had to look out into the car park at Mike Bullen's shiny, sporty MG and we had our answer. And how many blackfellas can you fit into an MG? Well, you'll just have to write an internationally successful drama series and find out for yourself!
Rima Tamou is a writer and director of award-winning shorts such as Round Up and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning which have both screened on SBS and in numerous international festivals. He also directs for the ABC's Message Stick and is currently writing a half hour drama for the AFC Indigenous Unit's Dramatically Black series.
Writing for Series Television Workshop
Mike Bullen consulting with participant Paula Maling