Hunter playwright on world stage 

SUCCESS STORY: Vanessa Bates at home in Hamilton in October.  Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
SUCCESS STORY: Vanessa Bates at home in Hamilton in October. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

IT has been an amazing week for Newcastle playwright Vanessa Bates. She has had her latest play given a reading in the United States and she was named joint winner of the 2012 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for best play.

As luck would have it, Bates was in Washington attending the National Showcase of New Plays when her NSW writing award was announced in Sydney on Friday night.

The NSW prize was for her comedy Porn.Cake, which looks at two moderately well-off couples approaching their 40th birthdays and wondering what has happened to their lives. 

Can cake with coffee help fill the void? And what about the internet and social media?

Porn.Cake, which premiered at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre late last year, was given a Sydney season by Griffin Theatre in June, with fellow Novocastrian Glenn Hazeldine as one of the husbands.

Bates shared the $30,000 prize with Melbourne writer Joanna Murray-Smith for her work The Gift.

The Premier’s play award was this year renamed as the Nick Enright Prize, honouring the late Nick Enright, a playwright who was another Hunter product, raised in Maitland.

Bates’s new play, which was given a reading in Washington, is called Every Second.

Its central characters are two childless 30-something couples desperate to have babies. 

Their lives become a race against science, self-confidence and friendship, with test tubes and Chinese herbs their only allies.

It was one of two new Australian plays chosen to inaugurate an annual exchange program between organisations in Australia and the US, Play Writing Australia (PWA) and the National New Play Network (NNPN). 

These organisations help playwrights develop their works and promote them to theatre companies.

The other work is Moth, by Victorian writer Declan Greene, which tells the story of an unpopular 15-year-old suburban boy with an over-active imagination. 

The NNPN executive director, Jason Loewith, attended PWA’s National Play Festival in Melbourne in February this year, where Every Second was one of the works presented.

Loewith was taken with Bates’s writing, describing it as something that traversed familiar terrain in wholly unexpected ways.

The two Australian plays joined six American plays in having readings at NNPN’s annual National Showcase of New Plays.

It was hosted this year by Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company from November 29 to December 2.

The showcase is attended by representatives of US non-profit theatre companies, as well as playwrights, literary managers and playwright agents, and often leads to plays getting professional productions.

The event was an invaluable introduction for Bates and Greene to key figures in the US theatre field.

And those who attended the reading on Saturday of Bates’s Every Second will remember it for more than the quality of her writing.

In a message to Australian friends after the reading, she said that the play ‘‘went brilliantly, right up to the second the fire alarm went off and we all had to vacate the theatre and stand in the street.

‘‘After half-an-hour we went back into the theatre and the actors brilliantly picked up and went on.

‘‘Luckily, it was during the ‘Tim wanks into the specimen jar’ scene: somehow alarms and firebricks and big guys in helmets just seemed to fit,” she noted.

Vanessa Bates began her writing career with Footlice Theatre Company, a group formed with fellow students at the University of Newcastle in the late 1980s.

She lived and worked in Sydney from 1994 until late 2011, when she and actor-producer husband Christopher Saunders and six-year-old son Tristan made Newcastle their base.

While living in Sydney, Bates retained links with Newcastle.

Her 2006 play Checklist for an Armed Robber arose from a newspaper account of a woman shopkeeper at The Junction trying to talk a would-be robber out of his intended action.

Another of Bates’s plays, Match, which tells the story of a Muslim woman in Australia victimised after the Cronulla riots, was written for Tantrum Theatre in 2007 and won her a CONDA for best new play.

Then in 2009 she wrote Grevillea, the Wetlands Fairy for performance at the Hunter Wetlands Centre at Shortland.