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Land of my father

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Llantrisant, Wales, is a quiet place. Other than a couple of bars and historical landmarks there is not a whole lot to do.

And that made it the perfect spot for Owain Johnston to write.

He spent March there, penning two full-length plays — Right/Cross and Killing Carlisle.

“Airfares were lower at this time,” he said as he explained why he decided on a winter trip. “It was pretty nippy. It snowed a couple of times, but that just meant I was more inclined to stay in and write.”

His plays will hit the stage at Daylesford Theatre this week, performed by a full cast but without costumes or stage backdrops.

Regular BMDS audiences should be familiar with his work. The 36-year-old has won its annual Famous for 15 Minutes play-writing competition five times.

He won it the first time in 2008 when he was in college studying journalism, creative writing and theatre. The most recent was two years ago.

“People were always telling me I should write full-length plays,” said the journalist, who writes as Owain Johnston-Barnes for The Royal Gazette.

“But after working all day as a journalist, writing is often the last thing you feel like doing when you go home.”

A year ago he decided he needed to get focused.

“I asked my editor, Dexter Smith, for time off,” he said. “I suggested I could even take some unpaid vacation leave, but he said I should just use up all my paid vacation. I asked a year in advance and was able to take four weeks off.”

He went to Wales because his father, Christopher Vaughn-Johnston, is from Caerleon, a suburban town outside Newport. He was an assistant editor at The Royal Gazette in the late 1970s and now lives in Canada.

Mr Johnston was curious to see Wales because he had not been there since he was “a foot tall”. Llantrisant was a little cheaper than Caerleon, 30 minutes away.

“I stayed in an Airbnb across the street from Llantrisant Castle,” he said. “There was only a corner of the building because it was possibly burnt down, possibly by the person I was named after, Owain Glyndwr.”

His namesake is a folk hero, who led an uprising against the Kingdom of England between 1400 and 1415, known as the Last War of Independence.

“He ruled as king of Wales for six years before Henry IV [ended the movement],” Mr Johnston said. “He was never actually caught or killed.”

In his namesake's honour, he visited The Owain Glyndwr, a pub in Cardiff.

Mr Johnston had thought about doing a writers' retreat, but did not want to waste time talking with writers about writing.

“I gave myself a deadline,” he said. “I said I'd write weekdays — from 9am to 5pm or until I wrote 15 minutes of play time, about 15 pages.

“I wanted to treat it like a full-time job. I surpassed my expectations and reached the intermission of the first play within three days.

“I went out and celebrated ... too much. One of the places to drink is The New Inn, which is more than 100 years old. The next day I woke up and didn't want to get out of bed.”

He finished Killing Carlisle quickly, because the idea and characters had been rolling around in his head for ten years.

Killing Carlisle, set in Bermuda, is about two people who break into an arrogant b*&#@^!'s house with the intention of murdering him,” Mr Johnston said. “Unfortunately, he is not home. As they wait for him, things get more and more complicated as more characters are introduced.”

The play was inspired by Waiting for Godot, by the Nobel Prize-winner Samuel Beckett, where two characters wait endlessly for Godot to arrive.

“My first working title was Waiting to Kill Godot,” Mr Johnston said. “Except that Godot didn't have hand grenades. I like to call it a dark comedy with light weaponry.”

Right/Cross is about three people who get drunk and decide to punch a politician in the face.

“The rest of it is about the aftermath. Often when we decide to do these things we don't think about the long-term consequences.”

He was inspired to write the play after seeing a news clip where white supremacist Richard Spencer was punched during an interview in January 2017.

Mr Johnston is a huge fan of professional wrestling but does not normally get excited about violence.

“But I watched Richard Spencer being punched, on loop,” he said. “Then I started questioning why I was enjoying watching this. Is violence ever the answer?”

He is thrilled it is not a part of his daily routine.

“Some journalists encounter violence directly during the course of their job,” he said. “I've been lucky that has never happened to me.

“I don't really view my writing as a means of therapy for anything I experience at work, but what I experience at work and the stories I hear certainly affect me.

“I have covered so many trials where the reality is there are no winners — guilty or not guilty, the damage is done. I think that experience has certainly influenced me and my perspectives.”

While he was in Wales, he reconnected with a long-lost cousin and visited Caerleon, his father's birthplace.

“It was a nice experience,” he said. “There used to be a Roman base there, which meant they had a little auditorium. Nowadays it is a park and kids were playing in it.”

But at the end of March, he was happy to come home with his work. He cannot wait to share it with a proper audience.

“It's the first time I have staged a full-length play reading like this,” he said.

“I will get to see how it sounds coming out of a human mouth, and see the audience's reaction. Afterward, I am going to get feedback and talk to people, and see what they thought.”

Many people have suggested he move abroad to pursue his passion but he realises it is a hard way to earn a living.

“For most writers, anywhere you live, you have to take on a second job.”

Owain Johnston's Right/Cross will be performed at 8pm at Daylesford Theatre on Wednesday and Thursday; Killing Carlisle follows on Friday and Saturday. Tickets, $15, are available at the door

An audience with Owain: Owain Johnston has written two new plays, which will be performed at the Daylesford Theatre this week (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)
Hard at work: Owain Johnston

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Published September 17, 2018 at 9:00 am (Updated September 17, 2018 at 8:53 am)

Land of my father

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