review by Stayci Taylor
There is growing attention to script writing as a legitimate critical methodology and to its attendant artefacts as scholarly research outputs (Kimber 2014, Beattie 2015, Batty et al 2015, Batty, Sawtell & Taylor 2016, Kerrigan & Batty 2016, Lee et al 2016, Batty & Taylor 2018 – see works cited below). Dallas John Baker is himself a leader in the field of producing scripts as research and theorising the process (Baker 2012, Baker 2013a, Baker 2013b, Baker et al 2015, Baker 2016, Baker 2017, Baker 2018a, Baker 2018b, Batty & Baker 2018 – see works cited below). In this collection of four short scripts, Baker offers the reader the chance to experience these works as discrete texts that contribute to an emerging field of script writing ‘as a mode through which theories and ideas of various types can be illuminated, tested out and, in some cases, transgressed’ (Batty & Taylor 2018: 377). In this way, Baker addresses a lack of such opportunities for readers, given ‘there have been few avenues available for the publication of dramatic scripts as creative writing’ (Baker et al 2015: v4) because ‘the publication of scripts has traditionally only happened post-production, as a kind of validation of the script’s successful production, either for stage or screen’ (Beattie 2013: 1).
Ghosts of Leigh and other plays comprises two theatre scripts and two screenplays, not necessarily to be considered for the stage or for the screen, but rather ‘artefacts of a writing practice’ where it is anticipated that ‘by not signalling the mode of production or reception (stage, television or cinema), the term “script” hopefully reorients the reader from approaching the text as ancillary to a stage or screen production to understanding it as a finished creative and research work on its own terms’ (Baker 2013a: 2). Baker usefully contextualises the collection in the preface, situating the pieces ‘as research artefacts that are able to communicate new knowledge in creative ways’ (i). This underpinning gives a methodological coherence to the collection, which is further unified by its world and themes. Baker’s four works are all set in Toowoomba in Southern Queensland, Australia over the years spanning the early 1980s and the mid 1990s and all are ‘informed by poststructural and queer theory relating to subjectivity, identity, gender and sexuality’ (i).
Baker’s collection leads strongly with the titular Ghosts of Leigh, a coming-of-age play that pairs the main character, teenager Dandelion, with a mentor – in the form of the ghost of Australian performance artist and fashion designer Leigh Bowery. By exploring effeminacy as ‘a subversive masculinity of considerable discursive potency’ (ii), the piece invites us to consider the complexities of effemiphobia, which transcends gender and sexuality identities. Ghosts of Leigh is an accomplished two-hander, where the characters collide and complement each other in ways that draw out the conflict and comedy, which in turn highlight the themes and theories in ways that avoid didacticism. Baker turns his hand to dialogue that is striking and efficient in revealing character, particularly demonstrated by Leigh’s arch witticisms:
What is impressive about Ghosts of Leigh is how the critical theory is enacted not only through content – ‘How nice to have two of me here’ says Leigh (8), referring both to his reflection in the mirror and the performative nature of gender – but also through form. By staging a play within a play – ‘Seriously, you carry the script of your life with you everywhere you go?’ asks Dandelion of Leigh (41) – Baker puts his young protagonist to the work of performing various aspects of his gender identity. As Leigh says towards the end of the play, ‘you’ll spend your whole life in disguise, wearing a uniform dictated by other people’ (54). It is an added pleasure that the book includes illustrations from the original production of Ghosts of Leigh, which are cleverly placed where lights fade to black between scenes, affording the reader the same sense of space and time passing (30-36).
Hallwalkers, the second piece in the collection, likewise explores its themes through content and form (in this case, screenplay form), with the use of the protagonist’s direct address to camera. While the ‘conceit of breaking the fourth wall has long seemed to operate as an extension of the screenwriter’s macho authorial voice’ (Bastow 2019), it was also used in early feminist filmmaking as one of the narratological focalisation techniques employed to challenge the universal subjectivity of commercial cinema (Smelik 1998). For Baker, the use of direct address functions ‘as a subversion of mainstream (masculinist) screen conventions that accentuate the visual (masculine) over the verbal (feminine) and verisimilitude over self-reflexivity’ (iii). He is playful with this device, situating the reader (or viewer) firmly in the sights of the young protagonist, Ally:
As a gender non-conforming character, Ally’s question of being ‘convincing’ is multi-layered – and ultimately left unanswered, since the portal created by the broken fourth wall only works one way.
Bath Party follows a similar protagonist to Hallwalkers’sAlly through a similar narrative structure, where the central character, Izzie, likewise described as ‘pretty but does not believe that she is’ (61, 91), also finds a form of acceptance from the object of her desire. Izzie is confronting a different set of conflicts, however, and the first three scenes again demonstrate Baker’s ability with rich two-handers in domestic settings; places the reader is invited to consider anew through the eyes of the characters inhabiting them, within which every nuance of their mutual confinement is explored. It feels like Hallwalkers’s Ally and Bath Party’s Izzie exist in the same transmedia universe – only a year separates their attendance at (albeit, very different) parties in the same small town – and that this could be fodder for future research and creative exploration.
Rounding off the collection is I’m Going to Set You to Boiling, Baby. In this screenplay, also exploring coming of age themes, it is clear that Baker is relishing the opportunity to move beyond the confines of the stage set and into the wider world of Toowoomba, delivering economical and evocative ‘big print’ (action and description) demonstrating one of the important mainstays of screenwriting craft:
The screenplay ‘re-imagines a moment in the author’s youth when he first acknowledged his sexuality and gender difference’ and evolved out of ‘an interdisciplinary approach including factual research … and fiction techniques’ (v). An accomplished and produced playwright, Baker sometimes misses opportunities to fully exploit the full range of screenwriting devices, such as montage, instead bringing to this (and Hallwalkers) more theatrical conventions such as long, complete scenes and soliloquy. With that said, over the course of this script, Baker has increasing fun with superimposed titles (a specific affordance of screen storytelling) that supply definitions of words used by characters, ranging from the playful:
to the witty and knowing:
to the sobering:
As Baker notes in the premise, the piece ‘extends the application of memoir as mere retelling to one of refiguring of memory’ (vi, emphasis in original). This has the effect of sharpening the point-of-view, where the world and its supporting characters are vividly drawn from the perspective of the protagonist. It is perhaps unnecessary, then, that a final narrative voice-over announces that ‘This is how I remember things. My memories are my own, and I will make them what I will’ (176). By contrast, Izzie in Bath Party (this piece evolved out of a similarly hybrid methodology, as noted in the preface) reflects ‘How very eighties of me’ (95) offering a layer of retrospection that temporarily, and cleverly, gives voice to the authorial process.
Ghosts of Leigh and other plays is a strong collection of scripts that can be enjoyed as lively and nuanced pieces of creative writing as well as theoretically rich research artefacts. Baker is particularly adept with his casts, whereby the ‘characters become fictional agents of research themes and concerns, and can bring academic ideas into a broader, more mainstream world’ (Batty, Sawtell & Taylor 2016: 155). Though not explicitly identified as one of Baker’s theoretical frameworks, it occurs that his is an enquiry informed by the tenets of critical autoethnography, which ‘theorizes the dynamic relationship between the personal and the cultural’ (Adams & Holman-Jones 2018: 153). With this collection, Baker shares his unique view of 1980s-1990s Southern Queensland, while deftly employing critical theory, which not only strengthens the themes of gender and sexuality, but also offers a solid research contribution across a number of scholarly fields.
Stayci Taylor is a Lecturer in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. She is also a screenwriter, whose credits include nine seasons of an award-winning bi-lingual soap and a prime-time sitcom. She is currently co-editing two edited collections on the topic of script development.
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Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker. Assistant reviews editor: Simon Telford