If you ever watched Dead Poets’ Society or read Howl then you came to university on the look-out for a writers’ cult to join, stare disdainfully at from across Hermann’s, or admire from a distance with the hope of one day saying you rubbed shoulders with the next Keats. Lauren Pearce and Finn Davis also had those dreams of meeting other struggling artists and building a den of admirers to make Shelley and Kerouac proud. Unfortunately, after a quick sweep of the OWeek stalls, you were made promptly aware of the university’s inability to facilitate a thriving writers’ community. Pearce’s Fallout, directed by Davis with Smoking Gum Theatre, exemplifies the inability to attain this dream and the necessity to branch away from campus in order to achieve greater creative freedom and a more valuable conception of success.
The selection of university publications is a rather sad, inconsequential bunch: a handful of under-circulated and almost entirely unread journals and two news outlets. The journals (Hermes, ARNA, Growing Strong, Carillon) in particular are, unfailingly, reconstitutions of the same editing and contributing teams year in and year out, creating a self-congratulatory who’s-who that stimulates literally no external interest. As Pearce surmises, “Publications are great for resume credits for writers and, unfortunately, that’s about as good as campus publications get.” While Bull magazine has a larger circulation, the editing team has yet to demonstrate the experience or credibility to generate interest from fiction writers across . With an unrealistic 1000-word limit on short fiction and a poetry editor with poetry experience trending towards zero, their insistence on publishing fiction is completely out of touch. That leaves Honi Soit with the most promise of providing a genuine outlet for student-written fiction with any chance of being read or valued beyond the writer’s immediate friends. Honi, though, is ultimately a newspaper with neither the motivation nor capacity for supplementing the university’s literary needs since, to date, despite the editors’ enthusiasm, it remains ostensibly non-fiction. Without a genuine means of publication on campus, writers lack the competition or incentive to produce new or exciting work.
For stage writers, like Pearce, their options are even narrower with on-campus support almost exclusively in the hands of the performing arts societies. While the trend to produce student-written work took a turn for the better in the Dramatic Society last year with eleven out of their twenty-six productions being student-written or devised, the propensity to reproduce the classics creates a stifling atmosphere that has seen many new productions denied the opportunity for staging. For Pearce and other script writers, competing with the canon is often unfeasible as societies are unwilling to take a risk on their returns. This pushes writers to external opportunities like the Griffin Prize which grants both a cash prize and the chance for development, or indie production companies like Smoking Gum Theatre or Theatre21. As a director for Smoking Gum, Davis simply finds working with new artist and works more exciting than regurgitating HSC syllabus texts. Plus, producing work off-campus makes you part of the ‘real world’ amongst a more diverse theatre scene that offers a sense of validation for writers not necessarily available through the societies. While getting your work produced in any environment is a challenge, when the interest and reward is much greater off-campus, it’s not difficult to choose which battle is more worthwhile..
For building a community of writers on campus, the use of societies remains instrumental, though, if only as a means of introduction. Pearce’s experience with theatre and writing were separate before joining SUDS and meeting creatives, like Davis, who have merged the two. As current President and ex-Vice President of the Literary Society, both Pearce and Davis understand the intentions of generating a standardised society for grouping student writers and attempting to facilitate their artistic expression. However, the Literary Society has struggled to even maintain the necessary quorum of members to justify its existence. In the last two years, the society has undergone two refurbishments in an ongoing attempt to achieve at least the semblance of a structured writing community on campus. The recent reiteration has seen a massive influx of interest and new members, but the excitement of OWeek only carries so far into semester as attendance and motivation declines. There are usually more considerations on a student writer’s mind than whether or not their closet hobby, which ultimately grants no return, is worth the time or effort during semester.
So the problem remains. “There’s people doing amazing work but it’s all happening in a vacuum,” Pearce articulates the strife of all young creatives to get work off the ground and to make a success of it when institutions aren’t providing the appropriate support. If creative spirit demands a writers’ community on campus and the standardised union society doesn’t fit the bill, then the solution may lay in a more nebulous approach, an informal collection swayed by the aspirations and competition of the cohort. Pearce relates her experiences with how easily the crucial discussions occur over a glass of wine at the pub; when people of mutual interest are brought together it doesn’t take long to veer into common territory like an upcoming submission deadline or the latest release from Sarah Kay.
Or perhaps we’re still being too unrealistic. After all, writing is one of the most solitary professions, with student theatre making a rare exception of writer/production interaction. Perhaps the pressures and demands of study, work, and life are growing too great and turning projects like Fallout into a fluke of our transitional generation.