Category Archives: Books

Play is hard work

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I’M pleased to announce the publication of another work of non-fiction – Merely Players: Acting like Shakespeare really matters. Here’s an extract from the foreword:-

Theatre people know the art of making a play is very, very hard work. Real life is simply a matter of turning on the phone-cam, whereas the creation of a piece of drama or comedy is an ongoing process of questioning and exploring, usually starting with a script on the page.

This book is the story of my journey with one piece of work that took me thirteen years to manifest. Merely Players was an idea I had in my teens, revived as my youth was waning, and still haunts me in middle age. Of all the projects I ever started, it is one of the few I have refused to give up on, and it’s the piece of literature that has been my greatest teacher in learning the writing process.

“As is typical with Shakespeare, there are plenty of clues but not much hard evidence.”

Along the way I’ve felt the bitter sting of rejection more times than I am willing to admit.

Unpublished and un-produced work is easily delivered to the bottom drawer of any writer’s desk, but sometimes it’s not easy to leave it there. This is probably a mixture of ego and bloody-mindedness, bad luck and the shortcomings of the work itself; however, when a writer knows a good story, a certain amount of persistence is required if the marketplace is slow to recognise it.

The most recent example of this process was the two-decade development of Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Carol, which languished in what writer’s call ‘development hell’ until the right production team came along.

In interviews, Nagy admitted how match-fit the long wait made her, able to adjust her work quickly and subtly to match the visions of new stakeholders; yet she also admitted the years showed her the value of her original work when new production teams inspired her to put old ideas back in that had been discarded by temporary collaborators along the way.

Merely Players has been a bit like that for me, but it has also been a companion.

BURGE’S BARD The author and Andrew Broderick in The Taming of the Shrew.

The focus required to commit to a full-length work kept me going through some very dark times, so much that the play has come to symbolise a lot about me as a person, my thoughts and feelings about ageing, sexual and gender diversity, and the politics of storytelling in the modern theatre.

After the latest rejection of my work, I retreated into writing in order to bring Merely Players to life for readers, not really knowing if the result fitted into any genre. Adapting a play into a piece of literary non-fiction requires the writer to direct the play’s action, in a sense, which has made what might have been a labour into a delight.

I also broke a cardinal rule about authorship that was around at the dawn of my writing career, about not putting yourself in the story, yet finding there was more of the tale to tell by opening the gate on my role.

I hope the finished product gives insights into the writing process, showing that life for actors and writers has not really changed much in the four hundred years since William Shakespeare was creating plays for his company of actors, The King’s Men.

“Without these players, ‘The Bard’ simply would not be.”

When Shakespeare died in April 1616, he left several problems for his colleagues. The years between his death and the publication of what became known as The First Folio of his collected plays in 1623, a process spearheaded by Shakespeare’s fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, were a litany of loss and harried industry that only seemed to accelerate in the wake of lead actor Richard Burbage’s death in 1619.

Historians have speculated about exactly how the publication was paid for, edited and printed. The theories include Germaine Greer’s quite valid assertion in her well-argued study Shakespeare’s Wife (Bloomsbury, 2007) that the project could have been spearheaded and funded by Ann Shakespeare (née Hathaway).

Despite Greer’s well-documented blindspot for realities about transgender women, her work on bringing to life the under-documented life of Ann Hathaway sheds more light on the Shakespearean canon than it has ever been given genuine credit for, and was a great source of inspiration for me when using similar techniques to flesh out the transgender protagonist of Merely Players – Mistress Wilkinson, alias Nicholas Tooley.

As is typical with Shakespeare, there are plenty of clues but not much hard evidence.

The best explanation of the publication of the Folio I ever found was that written by actor and teacher Doug Moston in the introduction to his facsimile edition of The First Folio of Shakespeare 1623 (Applause Theatre & Cinema Book Publishers, New York, 1995).

Moston’s exploration of the Folio, from its typography to its many clues and cues for actors, recreates the performance conditions of the original Shakespearean players. It reveals much about how attitudes to rehearsals and script management have changed over time.

No matter what any historian thinks of the plausibility of Merely Players, it would be hard to argue that the deaths of two company mainstays made things easy for The King’s Men. The evidence that the First Folio is full of errors and not the definitive versions of many of Shakespeare’s plays (despite Heminges’ and Condell’s claim that it was) tells me there was a certain amount of desperation and pretence in its publication process.

It could also be argued it was one of the world’s most important and best-selling independently-published books, and therefore inspiration for self-publishers everywhere.

Having worked as an actor, knowing the passion and drive it takes to perform, and also keenly aware of how the same ingredients go into writing, I am qualified to speak on these actors’ behalf and imagine that they had the ability to rise above their station (players were considered by most to be little more than scum) and were far more influential than Shakespeare in delivering that which his work gave to the world. Without these players, ‘The Bard’ simply would not be.

But I already know what a great story it is…

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Shake-up on the small screen

THIS week I’ve been back in the cutting room bringing readers the trailer for my new book Merely Players: Acting like Shakespeare really matters.

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With his near-universal appeal, William Shakespeare was the start of Merely Players, but he’s by no means the finish.

I started writing this story in 2003, and it’s been a labour of love in the true sense of the word. I’ve even delved into the photo album to dig out some old shots of me playing Petruchio in an Acting Factory production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and thereby hangs a tale…

Merely Players: Acting like Shakespeare really matters is the story of two unconventional players whose lives are linked by the works of the world’s greatest playwright, in a story about acting, ageing, fame and forgetting… just in time for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in April. Enjoy!



On the same page about marriage equality

26785881IN every writer’s life there comes a time when a piece written by someone else renders our own contribution unnecessary. After exploring the issue of marriage equality in my country for more than a decade, Rodney Croome’s new book has finally done this for me.

From This Day Forward: Marriage Equality in Australia is an aggregation of Croome’s major writing on the marriage equality debate to date, including updates on his 2010 contribution to Why Vs. Why: Bill Muehlenberg and Rodney Croome debate Gay Marriage (Pantera Press).

But Croome’s collection is much more that; it’s the best document Australia has to move the debate – finally – into legislation.

The only possible rebuttal to From This Day Forward is religious ranting or political belligerence, because, as Croome puts it: “The critics of marriage equality are trapped in an intellectual cul-de-sac.”

I had a particular interest in reading this book: I was keen to fact-check my own publication Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love against a more comprehensive document covering the story of Australia’s legislative failure, but I was unaware of Croome’s book until it was launched in Brisbane last week.

“A well-articulated exploration of the total lack of arguments left for opposing marriage equality. It stands like a boundary, behind which the debate will retreat no longer.”

It’s a great year for books by same-sex attracted writers. With Magda Szubanski’s memoir Reckoning, and the rerelease of Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man off the back of the movie release, gay and lesbian writing is getting a great run.

Although like my title, From This Day Forward does not have a huge marketing machine behind it. This makes for a hard sell at a time when readers and audiences are at marriage equality saturation point, there’s an overbearing unwillingness to just get it done, and the mainstream media seems incapable of selling a story of what it sees as a dead horse, slaughtered by both sides of parliament.

Croome’s book is a well-articulated exploration of the total lack of arguments left for opposing marriage equality. It stands like a boundary, behind which the debate will retreat no longer. For someone who has heard and endured all the classic approaches (he was confronted by one at his launch – the old ‘why call it marriage?’ chestnut), in person and in his book, Croome – the national convenor of Australian Marriage Equality – maintains the neutrality of an activist prepared to go on calmly answering loaded questions forever.


I admire such public strength. My own book reveals my inability to be as dispassionate. Driven by grief, fear and pain, I wrote the awful truth about the depth of my disenfranchisement in Questionable Deeds, revealing how prejudice and lax laws robbed me of self determination as a surviving spouse.

Although I was relieved my research stood up without the benefit of reading Croome’s book, what encouraged me more was his call to action from the LGBTI community to share our experiences.

“Whatever lies behind the power of personal stories, they are immensely effective in showing how marriage inequality affects ordinary people day-to-day. They tap into our desire to understand the ideas and feeling of others,” Croome writes.

Our stories are most effective for the cause when we manage to bend the ear of our federal MPs, Croome writes. Mine is Andrew Laming, federal member for the Queensland electorate of Bowman, a regular flip-flopper on marriage equality.

At his launch, Croome paid tribute to Queensland’s major contribution to the legislative push. It’s here that Warren Entsch (Liberal federal member for Leichhardt), and Teresa Gambaro (Liberal federal member for Brisbane, who launched Croome’s book last week), joined forces with Terri Butler (Labor federal member for Griffith) to co-sponsor a cross-party bill on marriage equality.

Since the entire house of representatives owned the bill, this was a unique moment in the journey, and a shining example of politicians getting their heads around the positive impact of equality on the mental health and wellbeing of their constituents. Andrew Laming would do well to watch and learn, and he could start by buying Croome’s book, and mine. He was invited to my book launch, but did not respond.

Croome also gets to the heart of the current plan for a marriage equality referendum or plebiscite.

“Human rights defenders are rightly concerned about putting inalienable rights to equality and personal autonomy to a show of hands,” he writes, underlining how there’s no constitutional requirement to ask the people on marriage when it was parliament that autonomously altered its definition in the first place.

I support Croome’s view that a national vote on marriage equality would pass the law. Even if the regular polls are significantly wrong, the majority of Australians would say yes.

“My concern is with the process, not the outcome,” Croome writes, referring to the high price that would be paid by the LGBTI community in terms of our mental health.

It’s in this zone that Croome’s book and mine intersect. Croome quotes statistics gathered in the wake of the banning of marriage equality in 2004 – the year my partner died – which showed a sudden increase in mental health challenges for LGBTI.

Of the 2004 ban, I wrote: “It would have passed through my consciousness in my deepest grief and registered only as another reason to feel dreadfully unsafe about being same-sex attracted in my own country.”

I recall the sadness that went into writing that sentence, and nearly deleting it from subsequent drafts because I’d kept such deep-seated emotions in check while remembering the daily struggle of grief and depression in that terrible year. Croome’s book has finally put my struggle to process my disenfranchisement in context.

A major new element of From This Day Forward is an essay ‘Flight from the gilded cage: addressing criticism of marriage equality from the left’.

It’s an area of great interest, not just for those of us who are shocked at how the marginalised seek to marginalise others, but also for anyone wanting to advance their knowledge on the last bastions of objection.

QUESTIONABLE DEEDS PRAt my own book launch, in conversation with No Fibs’ editor Margo Kingston, she expressed a wish that I’d written more on marriage equality opposition that didn’t stem from homophobia.

I touched on it in my afterword, but Croome’s essay is the most comprehensive and timely argument taken up to several high-profile commentators who have provided great fodder for the religious right over the years.

Croome confronts them all – from former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her feminist arguments, to author Robert Dessaix and historian Dennis Altman, who have long argued that same-sex attracted people should not need such a heteronormative institution as marriage (although Altman began shifting his stance this year).

This essay validated all the times I’d thrown stuff at the television seeing these commentators failing the entire LGBTI community with their frivolous, often under-researched naysaying.

If you’ve endured the years of debate, From This Day Forward is worth reading for this boost alone.

From This Day Forward: Marriage Equality in Australia (Walleah Press) and Questionable Deeds: Making stand for equal love are out now.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.