Penguin Plays Rough — A conversation with Pip Smith
Zora Sanders and Pip Smith
Penguin Plays Rough is a storytelling night. And a book. And a vodcast. And… well, a lot of things. Suffice to say that organiser Pip Smith has a bit of an empire brewing. Last Friday was the Melbourne launch of the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories, and a chance for Melbourne dwellers to get a taste of the the fun and excitement that has made Penguin Plays Rough such a talked-about event.
Zora: So first of all, the obvious, how did Penguin Plays Rough get started? Was there a perceived lack of opportunity for emerging writers that you were trying to address?
Pip: When we first started Penguin Plays Rough, there weren’t any other reading nights I knew of in Sydney. But in the same way that birds and bats ended up looking weirdly similar despite having nothing to do with each other genetically, over the last two years there have been a few very similar reading nights that have emerged in Sydney completely independently of each other.
Storyclub, run by Ben Jenkins, is a night of storybook-style readings also delivered from a velvet chair. If we were going to stretch the bird/bat analogy until it snapped, I think you’d find that Storyclub is the bird, and we’re its leathery, less attractive friend. Storyclub come at stories from the comedy angle, while we’re a little looser in our categorisation of “stories”.
There are also the nights Eddie Sharp runs at the Surry Hills Library and the Jurrassic Lounge which usually follow a theme – such as diary readings etc. – as well as the Campfire Collective’s ‘true stories no notes’ evenings that are based, I think, on the Moth events in the US. In a way, the stories you hear at many of these Sydney nights are like wedges of writing that get re-arranged and re-programmed at rival events like songs on warring lovers' mixtapes. We’re all doing the same thing, essentially – sharing the same writers. We just spin them slightly differently.
I’m not sure why Sydney was salivating for story nights two years ago. Perhaps it’s because there is something self-affirming and right-inside-your-cells human about being told a story. That’s how our family histories are passed down, after all — the Tale of When Dad Served Penny’s Pet Duck, Duncan, for Dinner Because Everyone Was Moving Overseas, is a favourite in our family, for instance. Everyone else’s families might get group therapy, but even so, stories are important, and will never not be told. It’s not just the stories that are important, though, it’s the hard to define “stuff” that surrounds them: the feeling of community, of witnessing funny, silly, sad, strange, beautiful stories together and looking sideways to check everyone’s with you. And that’s what you don’t get from watching Breaking Bad on your laptop at 4 am in your bedroom. Or from reading a book.
So — now for actually answering your question:
What We Were Trying to Address:
- The fact that in Sydney, writers were seen as pretentious wankers who should probably just move to Melbourne. They needed a safehouse where they could be wankers in the comfort of their own wankery.
- The fact that TV was either/and/or: patronising/ content-less/ over-produced and therefore, phoney/ boring/ a waste of time.
- The fact that the ratio of actors to writers in Sydney was something like 300:1. Which meant bad scripts were often performed with Great Desperation and Gritted Teeth.
- The fact that we had a big front room in our flat on King St and nothing to do in it.
- The fact that hearing the same people whinge about the same things at the same pub every weekend was getting a bit boring.
Zora: The structure of the night, with the ‘call and response’ pattern is very cool, how did that come about?
The call and response structure was a gimmick we used at the Sydney Writers' Festival launch of The Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories which we then cut-and-pasted for the Melbourne launch. We did it as a way of sticking with our usual formula (five readers interspersed with five wildcards), but also as a way of making the night all about the book without making it a boring speeches-by-a-successful-literary-elder-who-really-has-nothing-to-do-with-the-book-but-who-gives-the-evening-an-air-of-importance.
Also, there are a few things about Penguin Plays Rough that I love and that I would never give up for all the writers' festival launches in the world, and they are:
An element of surprise. (Usually fulfilled by the wildcards or non-programmed readers)
An unfinished-ness. (This is because I want people to bring things that are brand new, that they are still working on — but more significantly things which have KINETIC ENERGY — writing that is going somewhere — not writing that is curling up in its coffin waiting for an editor’s final nail.
But by ‘unfinished’ I do not mean ‘shit’. Let’s just be clear about that.
Potential — this pat-on-the-head word could be an easy way of re-iterating the point above — but I’m making it a WHOLE OTHER POINT because it’s important and I need to say more about it with sub-points:
I started PPR after reviewing theatre for a while. I particularly liked the idea of running a short story night because short stories are like zygotes — they could turn into anything — monologues, plays, stand up routines, movies, novels, flowcharts, whatever floats your boat.
I also liked the idea of people being able to hear someone else’s short story, and get ideas from it — steal from it, and build on those ideas in their own work, or respond to those ideas in their own work. I write my best material after seeing or reading something I either love or hate — ideas don’t tend to rock up with a bottle of Moet and a publishing deal in a vacuum. Ideas come about when ideas rub up against each other in their jeans and create idea-babies.
But back to your question: the call and response structure seemed to work in Sydney, so we thought we’d give it a whirl in Melbourne too. And because of a mistake I made, Felicity Castagna’s “Fidel Castro Moves to Surfers Paradise” now has three extra chapters written by three other authors, all ignorant of each other’s responses. I love that. In fact, I think it needs more.
Zora: I first read Zoe Norton Lodge’s excellent story just the day before hearing her read it aloud, and my reading of it, in my head, was EXTREMELY different to hers. What has been your experience of the relationship between written stories and read aloud ones? Are there some that only work in one form or the other?
Pip: Hmmm… this is a tricky one. My first instinct is to say that there are definitely some stories that work better on the page and vice versa. But at the same time, I think that depends on the readings of the stories, and the contexts of the readings.
I think some of the stories in the book wouldn’t work read out at a standard Penguin Plays Rough, Michael Sala’s story being an example. The subtleties and nuances in his story would be lost on a boozy audience. Despite this, his was actually one of my favourite stories to edit not only on the page, but in the audio booth as well. There was something about sitting with his story on my own and hearing it up against Ivan Cheng’s spooky composition that was like falling asleep on a train and waking up, alone, on a sand dune, without your wallet.
I feel the same about Amanda Maxwell’s story, and Monica Brooks' wheezy accordian score which you can hear on our iPhone app. Amanda and Mon performed the story live and before the performance Amanda was extremely nervous about the reading. She kept insisting that she was not a good reader. But I really disagree. I’m sure an actor would be able to bring all sorts of other elements out of the story that even Amanda doesn’t know about, but I love hearing writers read their own work. Especially writers who are “untrained” at reading. There is something un-pin-pointable that is brought out in a piece of writing when the nuances of that writer’s voice meet the words on the page and lift them off it. That’s why I prefer hearing old recordings of Ginsberg reading HOWL to reading it to myself, in my head.
But that said, there is something really interesting about reading a piece of writing that was written to be performed. When I was a teenager, I used to read more plays than novels. I loved the spaces in playscripts. I loved that even though the stage directions would state that an actor walked across the stage at a certain point in time, it was totally up to me as to how that character walked across the stage. There is potential in a performance text. It really is a starting point and it’s up to your imagination to finish it off.
So now that I’ve essentially just made a point and un-made it, I’ll say this: I enjoy both listening to texts that were written for the page, and reading texts that were meant to be performed – as long as the couch is comfy, the environment’s just right and I can re-read or listen in a different context later, if I want to.
Zora: What’s next? Do you see the event growing/changing/ developing? Are we going to get a Melbourne chapter of Penguin Plays Rough? Please?
Pip: Good questions! Do you have the answers, please? Because I am currently asking myself all these questions, too. I’m enrolled at UWS so I think I need to lock myself away for a few months and wrestle with my own writing for a bit. After that, I’m definitely going to be coming back to PPR for Round Two of PPR publishing projects.
But don’t expect anything like the current book. I’m obsessed by all the new directions book publishing is going in at the moment. I was recently in London, and spent too many hours (and pounds) in some of the many gob-smacking stores in Hackney and Shoreditch. There’s a lot of really interesting stuff being made by small publishers right now. I’d love to spend six months in London learning what I can, so that PPR’s second stint in publishing will be bang on.
I think the Essential PPR Elements I listed above have to carry through into the print medium as well. They’ll definitely need to feel more finished than the PPR nights, but I hope they’ll always be surprising and carry a great deal of potential energy under their covers. Not just for the writers in them, but for Australian indie publishing in general. I don’t ever want Penguin Plays Rough to get too comfortable. I want us to be challenging Australian publishing, not letting it whinge about eBooks or Boarders or anything else for too long.
But I don’t know about a Melbourne chapter. Wouldn’t that be like buying a real life penguin a freezer for Christmas? I’m not sure you guys need us.
You can buy the Penguin Plays Rough book here!
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