Melissa Lee Speyer’s writing, while taking some dark turns is beautiful and she has a great ear for dialogue. TickTickBoom won the inaugural Silver Gull play award in 2015 and Speyer’s work continues to both haunt and impress in equal measure. She took the time out to chat to me about what inspires her and getting over writer’s block.
Joy – What (or who) inspired you to write TickTickBoom? Was the writing and creation a fairly organic process?
Melissa – TickTickBoom is a play for Leela Rottman. She’s had pulmonary hypertension, the condition at the core of the play, since she was born. She grew up with my then-boyfriend (now husband), which is how we met, and we lived together for a while when she first moved to Sydney.
I wouldn’t use the word “inspired”. Rather, she nearly died in 2011. It was a crisis point in her health and her independence. I tried, in my own awkwardly inept way, to be there for her. In hospital, I read my terrible writing aloud to her. Once home, I brought my kitten for a visit – and my terrified cat peed on the floor and nearly escaped out the window into an unfamiliar suburb. We agreed it was safest if I stuck to helping through writing.
TickTickBoom was my way of showing Leela that someone was listening, that someone cared. That other people would care too. I can’t profess to know exactly what she was going through, but anyone can try to help someone else feel a little less lonely when you are scared of what may or may not come. Let’s be honest, theatre has never cured anyone of a physical condition, so my efforts were, in the grand scheme of things, pathetic. So that’s what the play is about. It’s about just being present. It’s about figuring out resilience. It’s about two people helping each other make sense of the weird, unfair lottery that is life. And it’s about how you can’t ever predict the future with certainty, really.
She moved to Queensland in 2013 to be closer to family, and I had a baby. Midway through 2013, I started writing. And wrote. And wrote. As soon as I finished it, in early 2014, I sent it to her and promised to delete it if she didn’t like it. Assuming she wouldn’t read it for months and stressing that she would hate it, I chewed my nails, felt antsy, nauseous. Then she called me back just a few hours later and told me she liked it. That has always meant more to me than anything anyone else has ever said about my work.
Character-wise, it’s important to be clear – Leela and Jodie both have pulmonary hyptertension, and they’re both highly intelligent, but that’s where the similarities end. When I told Leela I was thinking of writing this play, we had a good long chat about the representation of disability in media. Jodie is spiky and sometimes flawed because Leela was sick of martyrdom and infantilism in portrayals of disability. I related, as I have similar issues with the representation of Asians in mainstream media, and we both had a lot to say about the representation of teenaged women. Leela’s not as sharp-tongued or defensive as Jodie. She’s no saint, but she’s not Jodie at all.
As for the medical elements, I checked in with Leela and others with pulmonary hypertension, as well as with medical professionals, to improve the language and technical elements. I related some of it back to real-life experiences I’ve had of emergency medical procedures, altitude sickness and oxygen starvation – again, not a patch on Leela’s experience, but a pathway in. And in parts, I did what dramatists do – I invented.
In terms of creative process – a play never arrives perfect and full-formed from the first draft. I worked with many wonderful and talented women to develop the work into what it is today: Felicity Nicol, Gemma Scoble, Maryellen George, Rebecca Barbera, Vanessa Cole, Lauren Pegus and Maeve MacGregor. Phil Spencer and Rachel Chant at Rock Surfers, Spark Youth Theatre Company and Bridget Mackey at five.point.one all offered development time and space and reading opportunities. I’m grateful to thebuzzfromsydney for awarding TickTickBoom the first Silver Gull Award. Now Paul Gilchrist, Daniela Giorgi, Emily McKnight, Rose Marel and Zoe Tomaras are adding their own shine. My husband and kids are inherently inspiring. Hope I haven’t forgotten anyone. Talk about it taking a village to raise a child.
Leela used to blog about her condition; you can read her writing at: www.heartlungthing.wordpress.com
People often ask me about the inspiration for other specific scenes. My answer remains, that handbook for so many Australian teenagers since time immemorial: Cosmo sealed section.
Joy – What do you do to overcome writer’s block?
Melissa – Eat Pringles. They’ve made it into a few of my plays now. Change writing locations. Run. Stretch. Do character work, structure work, or plot ahead. Re-edit. Get people to read it aloud. There’s always so much to fix, I can’t run out of things to do.
Something I don’t do anymore is keep a list of the problems I need to fix on the front page. Yeah, that copy went out once.
Joy – I remember seeing your play Decay at the Old 505 about three years ago, which was fantastic. You go to some very dark places in your writing, how do you keep from becoming too enmeshed in the subjects?
Melissa – Thank you for always supporting local indie theatre. Rachel Chant, Rosie Lourde and Joel Horwood devised Decay with me. They were fantastic companions on the descent into darkness.
Rachel and I actually worked on Machine together before that, which was all about suicide. And she’s also previously developed my work-in-progress, All Echoes End which is about reincarnation. So you might say, I have unresolved issues.
Exploring darkness with trustworthy people keeps me honest and sane. Having kids and cats around helps too. My youngest has accompanied me in many devising and rehearsal rooms, in utero and in a baby carrier.
I’m obsessed with death and dying. Aren’t we all?
No really, aren’t we? I’m not weird, am I?
Joy – Not weird at all! Who are some of your favourite writers or writers that inspire you?
Melissa – Caryl Churchill. Sarah Kane. Andrew Bovell. Donald Glover. Lauren Rouse. Nam Le. Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Tony Ayres. Paul Gilchrist. Jeffrey Eugenides. Michele Lee. Lally Katz. Holly Lyons. Vince Gilligan. Roxanne Gay. Tommy Murphy. Jenevieve Chang. Malcolm Gladwell. Benjamin Law. Sam Esmail. Pieter Aquilia. Christos Tsiolkas. Daniela Giorgi. Martin Seligman. Michelle Law. Shonda Rhimes. Alexandra Joel. Charlie Kaufmann. Katie Pollock. Stephen Davies. Nakkiah Lui. Nathan Mewett. Curtis Taylor. Dennis Kelly. Martin Crimp. Dorothy Hewett. Declan Greene. Aaron Sorkin.
Joy – What is next for you?
Melissa- There’s an episode of Matchbox/ABC’s new TV show The Heights coming out in 2019, with my name on it. Also a few episodes of a couple of kooky live-action comedy shows for tweens and teens for Ambience/Channel Eleven. Those were a hoot to write. And I’ve just finished the Masters in Screenwriting at AFTRS and aged 5 years in 2.
In terms of theatre, there are three unfinished plays that need some love, and only one of them is about death. I’m working with Jenevieve Chang on one of them about autobiographical family conflict, and I’m working with her on adapting her brilliant memoir, The Good Girl of Chinatown for screen.
I should clean the floor of my office. But I probably won’t.
A big thank-you to Melissa and chookas to the team for opening in two weeks. While Melissacontemplates the floor of her office, put her play in your diary: TickTickBoom is on at the Actor’s Pulse, 103 Regent Street Redfern, from Oct 10 – 20. For more information and tickets see: https://www.subtlenuance.com/ticktickboom