A month in Old Melbourne Gaol

Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Emilie Collyer

Photo of the ceiling at Old Melbourne Gaol
Old Melbourne Gaol

In 2014 I was nominated in Writers Victoria’s Personal Patrons Program. It seemed like such an old-fashioned and lovely notion – the kind of thing that artists dream of.

Even better was an email informing me that a Patron was interested in supporting my work and had offered to provide me with a one month residency in one of the Writers Victoria studios at Old Melbourne Gaol.

This came at a good time for me. I’d presented a new play at Melbourne Fringe Festival in September and knew that last few months of 2014 would be focused on preparing some upcoming projects in 2015. I nominated November for my month in gaol.

To be honest I wasn’t sure how much difference the residency would make to my work patterns or output. I work from home and generally have pretty good discipline, not being especially inclined to leap out of my seat and do a spot of gardening or run up a new set of curtains. In other words I can ignore the general domestic state of my home pretty easily in order to concentrate on writing.

But what was completely unexpected – and very welcome – was the level of focus and attention I could achieve in my gaol cell. There is definitely something to be said for a complete lack of other stimulation set within a greater environment of quite lively activity. The Old Melbourne Gaol is a busy place. From school groups to tourists, history buffs to curious locals, there is a steady flow of people traffic.

I kept the cell door closed but not locked. Now and then someone would knock or push open the door and they’d always be startled to find a living human inside. I had a few very lovely conversations with people curious as to why I was in there. But most people made a hasty retreat, apologising profusely and pulling the door closed as they backed away.

The studio has a peculiar feel. It is carpeted and painted white so in no way feels like the other, pretty grim, cells that are open to the public as part of the Old Melbourne Gaol museum. But, whether it’s the bluestone walls, the position on the third level, the sparseness of the room compared to my chaotic and over-crowded study at home, something in there evoked an almost super human level of concentration and focus in my writing.

I think it helped that I had a few key project goals for the residency: getting a script ready for an upcoming production in 2015, finishing a draft of a novel, and starting the ground work for a new performance work. Allotting these tasks to the set times I was in the gaol helped meant that I used every minute. Whereas at home – while not leaping around the garden or measuring the windows – there is a myriad of tiny distractions that I was not even aware until I was in another realm. Walking from one room to another, for example, to get water or find my phone, can probably put five dents into a one hour writing block. At the gaol, once in my cell, I stayed there, because (except for the occasional loo trip or lunch break) there was nowhere else to go.

It was a great lesson in how shifting your regular work environment and work hours can have a huge impact on work approach and attention span. I loved it.

I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat by nature so I didn’t want to think too much about stories I’d heard of the cell at Old Melbourne Gaol that is supposedly very haunted (it’s not either of the Writers Victoria studios in case you were wondering). I have to confess that at times I felt like being in the cell invoked an almost trance-like state. I know that the cell I was in used to be where they put prisoners who were up for release. They’d put a whole bunch of them in there together and see how ready they were for social interactions and the kinds of related pressure that going back outside would bring. I wondered, on occasion, if I was somehow channelling some of that energy. If writing can be seen as a form of transition (my brain to a page to a reader) perhaps there was something in the history of the cell that provided my writing self with an extra level of lived experience.

I had one odd experience.

I was working on a key, climactic scene from my novel that was all about confrontation and escape. As I drew to the end of this difficult scene I felt a gust of wind blow through the cell and the door (which was pulled firmly shut) banged, the piece of paper tacked on the back of it rustling from the impact.

The walls of the cell are very thick. The door is extremely heavy and only opens or closes with bodily effort. I don’t know what the wind was or where it came from. Maybe I imagined it. But just maybe, there was something in that moment, where what I was writing matched an emotional memory held within those walls.

A few people have asked me what impact writing in the cell had on the work I was producing. It’s too early to tell. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to detect any content specific to the Old Melbourne Gaol. But I won’t be surprised if I recognise, in certain scenes and words, something of the intense, concentrated energy that a place with such a history of emotion, of incarceration, of self-questioning and of life and death situations naturally holds.

My month in gaol turned into a wonderful opportunity for which I’m extremely grateful. It showed me a new way to work and focus that I can continue to draw on, and reminded me of the value of shaking up patterns and disturbing established comfort zones.

Sincere thanks to Writers Victoria, the friendly National Trust staff at Old Melbourne Gaol and above all, my patron, Lou Bortolin, for the opportunity.