STILL LIFE WITH CHICKENS: 2017 Adam Award winner

Mother hen and chicks, October 2012.

A play inspired by my mother’s adventures with poultry, and described at a workshop as surrealist and existentialist, has won the 2017 Adam New Zealand Play Award. I’m rather chuffed, thank you very much.

I’m in Melbourne at the moment so 2016 Adam winner Maraea Rakuraku very kindly accepted the award on my behalf, with something I prepared earlier:

Still Life With Chickens was going to be a co-writing venture with my Lovely Wife. She came up with the title and the concept, and I suspect she envisioned a situation where she would roam the study reeling off dialogue and scenes while I sat dutifully at the keyboard and typed everything in.

Because I love my wife dearly and I value our marriage, I worked on the play in secret for two years, and presented the script to her — crediting her appropriately, of course — as a fait accompli.

I acknowledge my fellow longlistees, in particular Maraea Rakuraku for kindly accepting this award on my behalf.

Thanks to Creative New Zealand for its support in getting the first draft to the finish line.

Thanks to Playmarket: Murray, Salesi, Kirsty, Allison — and before Allison, Stuart Hoar — for their tireless work in developing, supporting and hustling for New Zealand playwrights.

Thank you to the Adam aiga for these awards.

And thank you to my Lovely Wife who believes in me more than I do.

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STILL LIFE WITH CHICKENS: another play

Une poule.
Une poule.

Sharp-eyed (and long-suffering) readers of this blog may have put lua and two together to know that I’m working on a new play called Still Life With Chickens. It’s about an elderly Samoan woman who reluctantly adopts a barnevelder chicken and learns that there’s more to her sunset years than waiting for death.

I don’t usually announce projects in development but since Creative New Zealand has kindly provided a grant (and I’m a week behind on feeding this blog), I thought, What’s the harm in putting pressure on myself by announcing a work-in-progress that I’ll probably be asked about ad nauseum?

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Fill in the Gaps

So I’ve raced ahead with a script but all I have are a beginning and an ending. I’ve avoided and prevaricated but that’s not getting me any closer to meeting a(n admittedly self-imposed) deadline.

Right, then.

Still Life With Chickens is the story of a cranky old woman who reluctantly adopts a barnevelder chicken and learns that there’s more to her sunset years than waiting for death.

I’ve written:

  • the first few scenes where —
    • MAMA tends her GARDEN which is a bit of a haven from caring for her housebound husband;
    • the garden is invaded by CHICKEN who has a taste for silverbeet;
    • Mama catches the chicken, then tries to find its owner to give them a piece of her mind;
    • Mama, unable to find the chicken’s owner, decides to look after it for a few days;
    • CUT TO some time later — like, several weeks later — where Mama and Chicken have come to an arrangement:
      • the old woman has someone to talk to;
      • and the chicken is given parts of the garden to eat and scratch up, as well as kitchen scraps;
  • and the last few scenes where —
    • Mama has mellowed noticeably;
    • Chicken disappears, forcing Mama to interact with her neighbours in search for the chicken;
    • and [A SATISFYING RESOLUTION IS ACHIEVED]*.

Like I said, I’ve tried to launch myself from the tail-end of the first act with no success, while an attempt to work my way backward from that final act has been equally unsuccessful.

I listed some stepping stones:

  1. [OPENING SCENES]
  2. Something Happens
  3. Something Else Happens
  4. Crunch Time!
  5. [CLOSING SCENES]

My stomach tensing with the possibility of knocking this bastard off — and recognising Joe’s 11-Step Programme — I sketched in some more details:

  1. [OPENING SCENES]
  2. Something Happens
    1. Could grandchildren visit? They’d love the chicken! Excellent opportunity for variations on If you really loved me, you would visit more often;
  3. Something Else Happens
    1. Mama attends the funeral of a contemporary, and sees the shrinking circle of peers;
  4. Crunch Time
    1. Mama’s husband is taken to hospital, leaving Mama feeling very alone, maybe?
  5. [CLOSING SCENES]

Mm.

I could be onto something here.

 

* I know this is one of those dry technical posts but I can’t bring myself to spoil the ending.

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Exodus

Chicken sermon.
Chicken sermon.

It’s time to come clean.

Fortress Mamea is not an actual fortress. I have described various parts of it with fortress-like words (like armoury) — all of the parts exist… but in a real-world Kiwi quarter-acre section and house kind of way. (Hey, what did you expect? I’m a writer.)

And the reason for this moment of truth is that the inhabitants of Fortress Mamea are leaving West Auckland and moving north where — with, as always, the Goddess’ indulgence — a new home has been established.

Located in the rolling hills outside of Whangarei, the new, more substantial and redoubtable Fortress Mamea is over fourteen acres of land, bounded on three sides by a moat stream, and includes:

The Wood
There’s acres of this stuff. Ideal, one might say, for paintball adventures…

So, yeah.

More space. Less excuses.

New chapter.

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Morph

The chickens provide fodder for tall tales in Fortress Mamea.

Yesterday, the Goddess returned home late and asked, “Did anyone feed the chickens?”

The Children Teens ignored her aural query, preferring their online and cellular communications. I allowed the pause to lengthen until I finally said, “They were picketing with signs demanding No GST on Fruit and Veges and $15 Minimum Wage NOW, so I confiscated the placards and fed the buggers.”

The Goddess gave me a gentle peck of thanks. “A simple yes would have sufficed.”

Where’s the fun in that?

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Beethoven 2008-2011

There’s something I like about this pic of Beethoven: the speed blur, the beady-freaking eye -. I know: her hope that there’s food beside the camera.

Last Sunday, a dog – the same one as last time – breached Fortress Mamea and attacked Beethoven. I’ve tried to write up the circumstances of the discovery a few times now but they kept yanking the post – understandably – into righteous and incandescent Frank Castle revenge fantasies.

So. A dog got another of our chickens. This one I had to put out of her misery. I’m still quite angry at how avoidable it all could have been but what’s done is done.

Beethoven was the oldest of our current squadron and, although not the brightest or most interesting, was a big fan of The Goddess’ garden (it led, at times, to some stern heart-to-hearts between them) and never passed up the offer of crickets and worms found on the property.

She may have been just a chicken.

But she was one of The Goddess’ chickens.

She is missed.

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Poule – Part 3 of 3

EXT. MEADOW – MORNING

TITLE: Monday

A fine shower of BANTAM MIX descends on FOUR CHICKENS who set upon gobbling up the tasty seed ingredients.

GODDESS

(sing-song)

Hello girls.

THE GODDESS, dressed for Her day job, tosses up another handful of bantam mix --

-- a second shower of bantam mix falls about the chickens, the beaks pecking greedily in all directions.

One chicken in particular – we shall call her BUFFY – looks up from the seeds on the ground and goes up to The Goddess.

GODDESS

Hello Buffy.

Buffy pecks Her TROUSERS.

GODDESS

Watch it.

Buffy pecks at Her trousers again.

GODDESS

Oh alright.

She crouches beside the chicken – Buffy opens her wings at the sudden movement and we see that the clipped feathers from the previous episode are MUCH shorter now – and offers a palm of bantam mix. Buffy pecks at the proffered seeds.

BUFFY

(low)

Booooaaaahh.

The Goddess looks over her shoulder --

ANGLE ON our WRITER, also dressed for his day job, looking on from the BACKYARD.

WRITER

All’s well that ends well, eh?

The Goddess looks at the chicken eating out of her hand.

CLOSE on Her look of satisfaction.

CUT TO:

EXT. MEADOW – AFTERNOON

Three chickens crowd the GATE, looking out into the backyard.

We hear a car door open in the distance as --

EXT. DRIVEWAY – CONTINUOUS

-- our Writer closes the door of the SPORTSWAGON and --

EXT. BACKYARD – CONTINUOUS

-- he wearily approaches the BACKDOOR. He sees the chickens staring at him through the gate.

BUFFY

(O.O.S.; low)

Boooaaahh.

He looks down to see a lone chicken standing before him, opening and closings her wings with some measure of pride.

He crouches in front of her, holding up his CELLPHONE, thumb holding down the ‘Camera’ button. He frames the chicken who pecks at his trouser leg – and takes a photo.

WRITER

I hereby rename you....

ANGLE ON our Writer’s cellphone screen as he selects The Goddess’s cell number – he thumbs ‘Send’.

WRITER

(cont’d)

... Steve McQueen.

FADE OUT.

No chickens were harmed in either the actual events or this subsequent dramatisation.

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Poule – Part 2 of 3

EXT. MEADOW – DAY

TITLE: Sunday

FOUR CHICKENS excitedly gobble down STALE BREAD CRUMBS.

GODDESS

(O.O.S.; sing-song)

Hey girls. You like that?

ANGLE ON THE GODDESS as she peers through the fence from the BACKYARD.

One chicken in particular – we recognise BUFFY from our earlier episode – looks up before gingerly moving her right wing: we see that a number of feathers have been shorn in an unnatural but geometric straight line.

EXT. BACKYARD – CONTINUOUS

The Goddess grasps a fence paling in one hand as --

GODDESS

Look, it hurt me much more than it hurt you to do that.

(beat)

It was for your own good.

CUT TO:

INT. KITCHEN – LATER

Our WRITER enters with some DIRTY DISHES. Movement outside catches his eye.

WRITER

Um. Dear?

EXT. BACKYARD – MOMENTS LATER

Buffy stretches her wings defiantly as she approaches the GARDEN.

We hear a backdoor opening.

GODDESS

The books said clipping one wing would work.

Buffy manages a few panicked strides before she’s in The Goddess’s arms.

She and her captor stare at each other, not moving.

BUFFY

(low)

Booooaaaahhh.

The chicken cranes her neck to eye her captor RIGHT IN HER FACE. She doesn’t blink.

A muscle twitches in The Goddess’s cheek.

A long beat.

GODDESS

Right then.

The Goddess strides into the HOUSE, chicken in arm.

TITLE: TO BE CONCLUDED

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Poule – Part 1 of 3

FADE IN:

EXT. BACKYARD – DAY

TITLE: Saturday

ANGLE ON GATE to the MEADOW where THREE CHICKENS’ EYES watch as --

-- a New Hampshire red – we’ll call her BUFFY – struts in front of her audience, pecking occasionally at the grass.

We hear the backdoor opening O.S.

GODDESS

(O.O.S.)

What do you think you’re doing?

Buffy looks up – too late – as THE GODDESS picks her up --

BUFFY

(low)

Booooaaahhh –

-- and Buffy is shoved back through the gate into the meadow.

GODDESS

Now if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times –

CLOSE ON BUFFY as she eyes the fence – she has to crane her neck so much she looks like a goose.

GODDESS

(cont’d)

– no. Going. Over. The fence.

(beat)

Or ELSE.

She glares at Buffy who locks eyes with her briefly before resuming her examination of the fence.

INT. KITCHEN – MOMENTS LATER

The Goddess looks up from her GLASS OF PINOT GRIS to see --

EXT. BACKYARD – CONTINUOUS

-- Buffy balances on top of the fence a moment before descending to freedom.

She looks up at the house, her eye finding --

INT. KITCHEN – CONTINUOUS

-- The Goddess, watching in silence. She carefully puts her wine glass on the counter.

GODDESS

Right. That’s it.

TITLE: TO BE CONTINUED.

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