'Mr Eternity' play evolves into stories that span the ages

Time, money and faith needed to pull off production

It’s been a tough two years for Sydney-based theatre company Clock and Spiel Productions. As for many arts practitioners, COVID has left them with a string of cancelled performances and little funds for future productions.

The pandemic hit just as wheels had started spinning on a new play about the life of Arthur Stace – the elusive figure who chalked the word “eternity” in copperplate script on Sydney streets from the 1930s to the 1960s.

In September last year, the company secured permission to adapt for the stage a biography by Roy Williams and Elizabeth Meyers Mr Eternity – The Story of Arthur Stace.

Co-founders of Clock and Spiel Hailey McQueen and Yannick Lawry had hoped to launch the play in 2022 to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the first time Stace wrote ‘eternity’ in chalk – on November 14, 1932, outside the Burton Street Tabernacle in Sydney, after Stace heard an inspirational sermon by evangelist John G. Ridley titled “The echoes of eternity”.

“The story goes he heard the sermon, he walked outside the church, he reached inside his pocket, in which he had a yellow piece of chalk, and he wrote for the first time in beautiful copperplate, ‘eternity’,” explains Hailey McQueen, an actor and producer.

Unfortunately, because of COVID disruptions, it may take a miracle to launch the production by the original deadline, McQueen explains.

“Originally Yannick and I were like, maybe we could get it done by then [2022]. And I think now we’re like, well, maybe it’s going to be the 100th anniversary or the 95th anniversary!” she laughs.

“We’re hoping it will happen before then, but we’re not sure whether it’s going to happen by 2022 after these two years of setbacks.”

“There was a lot of what felt like losses [of productions] that we were really hoping would keep us going for the next five years.” – Hailey McQueen

McQueen spent Sydney’s four-month lockdown homeschooling her five-year-old son and juggling online teaching for Excelsior College, where she has taught acting, producing and theatre company management for the past 13 years. Meanwhile, bookings for Clock and Spiel’s productions continued to fall through because of the pandemic.

“In 2019, Yannick and I really felt like there was a sense of momentum for us. In 2020 we had several really great projects lined up and some previous works [including their production of Freud’s Last Session (Mark St Germain)] had been brought in by bigger venues … Of course, these didn’t happen in 2020. They managed to reschedule in 2021 but missed that again [because of COVID].

“So there was a lot of what felt like losses [of productions] that we were really hoping would keep us going for the next five years.”

Clock and Spiel had also planned a tour for their highly successful production The Screwtape Letters, which launched the company in 2015 with 42 performances across Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Adelaide. The company has been existing on the proceeds from these performances for the past five years and was hoping a future tour would help to keep them afloat.

Another reason the show may take longer than anticipated is that the story has expanded and evolved into three separate storylines, which together explore the concept of eternity.

“At the moment, we’re just calling [the play] ‘The Eternity Project‘ because we’re not sure what it will be called. We’re using the resource of Mr Eternity – the story about the Stace by Roy Williams and Elizabeth Meyers – as our main source, but it’s not just a retelling of Stace’s story,” McQueen explains.

“It’s unlike anything we have done before …” – Hailey McQueen

The company held a two-day workshop in February with award-winning playwright Donna Abela to develop ideas. Afterwards, they commissioned actor and writer Matt Abotomey to put together an outline of scenes.

“It’s not a script yet,” McQueen clarifies, “but it’s all the points of history that unfold. It’s nonlinear, so we’re going back and forth through decades.”

In addition to the story of Arthur Stace, McQueen says: “the other exciting element that we would love to have as an integral part is an Indigenous thread, a First Nations’ perspective, because we know that, obviously, eternity is a deep part of their storytelling, their dreaming and their concept of ‘everywhen’, so the past, present and future all being one.

“We are seeking a really genuine collaboration and engagement [for this thread], which just takes time and takes relationship. We’re not wanting to do anything tokenistic. We want it to be a really key marriage in terms of collaboration.”

The third storyline is a modern perspective on eternity.

“[The play] won’t be overly political, but we are thinking about some of the key things that humanity is facing, like, of course, the climate crisis. What is going to be our legacy? Can we turn this around? That’s not discussed [in a script] yet, but it’s certainly in our minds as we explore some of these threads through this concept of eternity.

“That’s why we’re just really taking our time with this,” says McQueen. “It’s unlike anything we have done before … I think it’s going to be something that percolates. And, of course, we need time to raise money and time to get investment.”

“I absolutely do think God’s hand was on this in the way that it came about.” – Hailey McQueen

The next steps for the production, after sourcing enough funding, are to commission more detailed work on the script and commission a musician or composer to develop music for the production.

“We really feel like music will be really integral to this storytelling,” McQueen explains. “Not that it’s a musical, but it will be a play with music, so it’s important to get people on board early so they are developing music with the script, and it’s not an add-on at the end.”

The final step is what McQueen describes as “a faith step” – securing permission to stage the production at Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst, Sydney, formerly Burton Street Tabernacle, where Stace heard the ‘eternity’ sermon.

“We just can’t do it anywhere else, but it is a faith step in that the works that are put on there are not at all like what we’re trying to do,” says McQueen.

“So it’s really a faith goal. We have engaged with the artistic directors there and we’ve got some good contacts, so it’s not impossible at all, but it is definitely a stretch.”

“It does really feel like it was meant to be.” – Hailey McQueen

But then again, McQueen admits, the entirety of this ambitious project feels like an act of faith to her.

“I absolutely do think God’s hand was on this in the way that it came about,” says McQueen.

She’s referring to the fact that both McQueen and Lawry were approached separately on the same day by different people suggesting they should adapt the book to a play. This seemed to be more than mere coincidence.

And while she admits that “at several points, I’ve thought, ‘I just can’t do this. I don’t know how to do this. I’m not qualified to do this’,” McQueen has also seen God’s provision throughout the play’s development.

“At every single point, there has been something that has been incredibly encouraging or something that has led me to just take the next step,” she says. “… I’ve really seen the hand of God at work through this. He’s been such an encourager, such a provider with resources and people and timing and judgment. So hopefully, it eventuates. It does really feel like it was meant to be.”

And even the pandemic seems to have been woven into the greater purpose destined for this play.

McQueen concludes: “Because I’ve been thinking about eternity so much, and of our First Nations people being on this land for thousands and thousands of years, I realised that the disappointments and the obstacles we experienced are just blips. They are really nothing. God’s plan is beautiful. His tapestry will get made. I just have to wait and see how, and trust that it will be okay and that we will survive as a company.”