In Progress

Muruwari writer Jane Harrison is best known for her award-winning play Stolen, but her latest project is morphing through several different literary forms. By Maddee Clark.

Jane Harrison

The writer was sent a Film Never Die camera to capture her workspace.
Credit: Jane Harrison

Jane Harrison is a Muruwari playwright and writer. She is currently director of the Naarm (Melbourne)-based Blak & Bright festival of First Nations writing. The author of the award-winning play Stolen, her other works include On a Park Bench and Rainbow’s End, as well as many essays and the 2015 novel Becoming Kirrali Lewis.

An avid multitasker, Jane worked on a wide range of projects in 2020, including a musical theatre piece, a lockdown monologue, a children’s animation, a novel and a libretto, and she also taught online at the Victorian College of the Arts.

Jane, how’s work been?

Incredibly busy. I had the play The Visitors premiere at Sydney Festival in January 2020 around the time of Invasion Day. The media, interviews, the whirlwind of that premiere, happened through the beginning of the pandemic and the heat and fires in New South Wales. Then we returned to Melbourne and the isolation was sudden. We moved from Melbourne here to Ballarat very quickly and that’s where we’ve stayed.

The Visitors has been getting more attention, so Victorian Opera has commissioned me to write a libretto for it. I had a masterclass in how to write a libretto from Richard Mills, the artistic director, and I’m working with an Indigenous composer, Christopher Sainsbury, who worked on the music for the play.

The Visitors is set in 1788, looking at the arrival of the First Fleet from an Aboriginal perspective. It looks at those last hours before they land on the shore and there are seven elders looking out to sea and they see these huge boats arrive and they’re deciding whether to let them land. And they go through their process – reasons why or why not – and in the end as they’re about to land they decide they’ll welcome them to Country. They see the arrivals as temporary visitors who will go back to their own country. Then one of them gets infected by the common cold; he goes up close to one of the arrivals who has a cold and we see his infection happen in real time.

I am not a great historian, I never remember the facts. But I remember these little bits and pieces, the minutiae. But to represent that moment was bizarre in hindsight, given the Covid pandemic.

You seem like you work with many different forms and many ideas at once.

Yes, you could say I’ve got the attention span of a fruit fly. I need stimulation all the time and I love doing something new. It’s not daunting for me to pick up a new skill. I made a children’s animation during lockdown for Little J & Big Cuz on NITV, for example. I’d never done it before. It can be an opportunity to rewrite my story brain.

There’s not an average day. I’m not that disciplined, as in I get up and write for two hours or whatever. It depends what I’ve got coming up and that varies through the year. I always write a list, that’s the one thing I do! At the start of the day I write one and I try to cross off as many things as I can.

And if I do something that’s not on the list, I write that in and cross it off too, because I like the feeling of achieving these tasks.

I intersperse that with going out, getting into the garden, getting some dirt under my nails – I love that. It’s really important for letting ideas float to the surface. I’ll often have great ideas while I’m hanging the washing out and doing something random. I also write longhand, always, for the first version of something. I don’t know if it’s just my age, but I do think there’s more of a connection between the mind and the hand. For me. I still have to think when I’m typing. It makes me go more into that editing mode. I have notebooks, a whole series of them.

There’s another show I’m working on with Red Stitch’s [short-play festival] Playlist. It’s a short play based on a song. This year it’s set in Alma Park. I lived in St Kilda for 20 years, so I know that world very well. I wrote it with Maurial Spearim in mind because she’s got a great voice, she’s going to sing it for me. So, I’ve done the scriptwriting for that show. The libretto work is just starting. I’m also writing a novel of The Visitors, which I’ve been at for a while.

Hang on, so The Visitors is a novel, play, and soon-to-be libretto? What is it like to shift between all of these forms at once with the same story?

I started the novel before the play had debuted. I’d tried hard to get the play going and I felt like there was more the novel could achieve at that time. The theatres weren’t as hospitable to it and the novel also offered the chance of getting it all in the present tense, to engage with the Indigenous idea of the past, present and future all happening together. Stories need different forms!

Bruce Pascoe made the point that we don’t have genres, going back to your other point before about working across forms. I feel that that’s true. It’s all just cultural expression, whether it comes out in dance or song or words or visual art.

When you write a play, or even a book, it’s a blueprint and as long as it has a resonance now, it can kind of have more than one life and more than one viewing. I hope they stand alone. I hope it works. I feel like I know the material enough to make it happen. There’s also the matter of word count. A play might run at 7000 words, a book at 80,000–100,000. For the libretto, I will then cut 60 pages down to about 15. I have to decide in that context, what is the essence? What will the chorus do, what will go into the arias, the peak moments? And what can the music do in there as well?

I do love the story. That’s why I’ve persisted. I’m patient because I know things happen at certain times.

I’m having an image of you sitting with this story and translating it from one form to the other and then back again. When you do stage work, do you get involved in the rehearsal, the direction and production?

I tend not to. I think that’s a hangover from Stolen, where I happened to be pregnant at the time. So I went to the first three days of rehearsal and came back on opening night with a baby! She’s now 27 and about to have her own baby. I tend to think, I hand it over and they do it all, the director and the cast.

In some ways I regret that; you learn so much seeing it thrashed out on the floor. But I love seeing what other people do with it. I love to hand it over, then go to opening night and seeing magic has happened. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 17, 2021 as "Jane Harrison".

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Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh writer and editor. They write the In Progress column for The Saturday Paper.