Stephen Sewell: Writing in the Age of the Technological Apocalypse

April 5, 2019
We speak with one of this country's great writers about the impact of the technological revolution on the creativity and prospects of our future screen and stage scribes.

When we get on the phone with the ever-candid Stephen Sewell, he’s in a particularly good place. “I’ve got a hit show at the MTC, Arbus & West – I haven’t given up. I’m making the dough.”

A highly acclaimed playwright, who also adapted the play into the film that became the Australian classic, The Boys, in between writing gigs, Sewell is also the National Institute of Dramatic Arts’ (NIDA) Head of Writing for Performance. It’s appropriate then that we should speak to him about his upcoming participation on a panel entitled Writing in the Age of the Technological Apocalypse. Chaired by Nell Schofield, the panel also includes screenwriter John Collee (Master & Commander, Hotel Mumbai), and two of Australia’s best playwrights Michael Gow (Away) and Alana Valentine (Ear to the Edge of Time).

This sure-to-be-lively discussion is part of a series of events put on by NIDA to celebrate their 60th anniversary in 2019.

There will be panellists optimistic about the future, like Alana Valentine, who has said, “the future is going to favour creatively-trained people who are pattern-recognisers and empathisers. We are moving from the Information Age to the Age of Purpose.”

Sewell sees things slightly differently. “The idea of a playwright sitting down to write a play as I’ve kind of spent my entire career doing, or a screenwriter doing a similar thing, already feels like a dead end.

“I’ve been here at NIDA for the last seven years, and I’ve been part of the education of new writers. And I can see that the opportunities that are available to them are very, very different to the opportunities that were available to me as a young writer. They’re much reduced, and when I’m talking to them what future might be there for them, what I’m really telling them is, ‘You have to make your own future. You will have to produce your own shows, you will have to find ways of getting stuff out…’

“What I say to the writers in the beginning of the course is that this is not a vocational course,” Sewell continues. “You are very unlikely to ever be in the position of being able to support yourself, just on a statistical level. Successful people can be very successful as we can see internationally. Even in Australia people like that can’t get a reasonable career out of it. The only reason you’re doing it is because you’ve got nothing else that you can do with your life.”

For some perspective, Sewell then throws in an anecdote about Mick Jagger. “I heard him being interviewed and he was being asked about this sort of stuff and he said, ‘Human beings have been making music for a million years, for thirty of those years some of us got paid’.”

Circling back to the topic at hand, will the ‘technological apocalypse’ impact on tomorrow’s writers? “Everyone’s struggling, everyone’s trying to work out how to do it, but I think that the technological holocaust shit is utter rubbish to tell you the truth. It’s capitalism and just another opportunity to exploit the working class, and get rid of everything that we’ve been fighting for the last hundred years.

“I’m doing a lot of stuff with high school students, and young people, fourteen, fifteen year olds, they’re smart, alert and watching what’s going on, and they want to do something about it. So they write to, put things on. Facilitating the creativity of young people is obviously a vitally important part of our culture and economy. Now, that all works fine as long…” he trails off.

George Ogilvie used to say to me, ‘There’s only one word you don’t use in the rehearsal room, and that’s ‘no’.’ So the rehearsal room is a place where all ideas are valuable and all ideas are worth consideration. And when you use that philosophy in a school environment, it produces magic. But as soon as you start saying ‘no’, you start closing it down.”

Sewell is ultimately someone who embraces technology rather than fight it, and to prove it he tells us about a research project he is looking to take on in the next year. “In terms of my career, I’m actually headed more and more towards research. I did my undergraduate degree in science and it looks like I’m going to shift further and further in that direction. I’m running a creativity study here at NIDA at the moment: how do you tell stories to a hundred thousand people, on a global scale? Increasing amounts of theatrical experiences are moving out of those buildings and out of those stages and into the world. To my mind, the most exciting theatricality and creativity that’s taking place, is within the context of technological development, where you can have hundreds and thousands of people participating in a theatrical experience across the globe; and how that might be managed in a political sense…

“I think I take a Hegelian view,” he concludes our chat reflectively. “Nothing is ever totally lost nor totally won. It’s a struggle. It’s a continuous struggle against oppression, and against repressive forces and those repressive forces to my mind are exactly the same today as they were fifty years ago. And sometimes they’re winning and sometimes they’re not.”

NIDA presents In Conversation: Writing in the Age of the Technological Apocalypse. 6.30pm, Wednesday 10 April, 2019. NIDA Theatres, Parade Theatre, Anzac Parade, Kensington 2033. Tickets: $25/$15 conc online or at the door.

Main Photo Credit: Maja Baska © NIDA

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