Bird and Wyrd Song: Writing the Sacred in Australian Theatre.

Author: Sheila Duncan

Duncan, Sheila, 2017 Bird and Wyrd Song: Writing the Sacred in Australian Theatre., Flinders University, School of Humanities and Creative Arts

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This practice-led research project explores the possibility of writing ‘sacred theatre’; theatre which tells the story of a ‘sacred experience’ and has the potential to evoke a similar experience in an audience. As a playwright, my aim has been to write two play-scripts, Wyrd Song and Bird and to explore how theatrical works may be a catalyst for a sacred experience. Although I acknowledge that no audience reaction can be fully guaranteed, the crucial aim of the exegetical research is to explore how different techniques may opportune a specific audience experience. The research begins with my own interpretation of the sacred and then discusses various perspectives on a sacred experience. It then surveys the scholarly literature and theatre practice that speaks to the possibility of a contemporary, western, non-religious ‘sacred theatre’. This survey covers theatre practices which may also be called post-modern, liminal or postdramatic and extends the definition of ‘sacred experience’ to include an experience of communitas, transportation, transcendence or therapia (healing).

In order to situate my own creative practice within the Australian context I explore six Australian plays which either address the sacred in content or are, in my opinion, concordant with my own creative aims. My analysis of this work constitutes what Haseman (2006) calls an “artistic audit” where the analysis is not “neutral” or objective, but is subjectively targeted towards analyzing practice (both writing and performance elements). This artistic audit includes Australian plays written between 1947 and 2002 that have been labeled expressionist, mythopoetic, liminal, hybrid and postdramatic. They are: Kevin Gilbert’s (1968) The Cherry Pickers, Peter Kenna’s (1973) A Hard God, Patrick White’s (1947) A Ham Funeral, Margaret Davis’ (1991) Isis Dreaming, Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman’s (1995) The 7 Stages of Grieving and Jenny Kemp’s (2002) Still Angela. I then focus on the collaborative dramaturgy of Brink Productions in South Australia, whose aim to evoke an experience of communion or transcendence for an audience shaped the writing and production of When the Rain Stops Falling by Andrew Bovell (2008). This play struck me as clear Australian example of sacred theatre. I conclude the artistic audit with a detailed case study of the play’s development process and a theoretical analysis of the writing.

I then turn to my own creative practice to analyze how the techniques and processes discovered through exegetical research have informed my own creative practice. The plays Wyrd Song and Bird are included as part of this analysis. In theorizing my own process, I conclude that techniques of writing which disrupt the rational presentation of time and space are useful to evoke a sacred experience in an audience, but are not always repeatable or applicable to all creative works. As Brook (1993) observed there is no hard and fast ‘toolbox’ for writing sacred theatre, but there are methods to orchestrate a glimpse of the elusive sacred in the way that a network of moments are constructed on the page.

Keywords: sacred, sacred theatre, Peter Brook, holy theatre, sacred experience, phenomenology, liminal theatre, communitas, ritual, therapia, postdramatic theatre, Kevin Gilbert, Petter Kenna, Patrick White, Indigenous theatre, Womens Theatre, Margaret Davis, Jenny Kemp, Wesley Enoch, Deboral Mailman, Brink Productions, Andrew Bovell, Chris Drummond, When the rain stops falling, Bird by Sheila Duncan, Wyrd Song by Sheila Duncan, Nic Mollison.

Subject: Drama

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2017
School: School of Humanities and Creative Arts
Supervisor: Dr. Anne Thompson