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June 30, 2020
Culture

Dear Australia: Postcards from a pandemic

South Australian writers and actors have lent their talents to a national project that will see the simultaneous livestreaming this week of 50 ‘fearless and inspiring’ short works capturing the COVID zeitgeist.

  • Words: Suzie Keen
  • Main picture of Adelaide actor Pontsho Nthupi by Matt Hawkins

“It’s about taking stock of this moment in time and gaining some insight from it,” South Australian Playwrights Theatre creative producer Lucy Combe says of Dear Australia.

Her theatre company is one of 25 mostly small- and medium-sized organisations across the country invited to participate in the Playwriting Australia initiative, alongside other SA participants Windmill Theatre Company and Brink Productions.

Remarks

Dear Australia will be livestreamed over three nights from 2—5 July on multiple Facebook pages and Playwriting Australia’s YouTube channel. A panel discussion will also be broadcast from the Sydney Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre on 4 July.

SA Playwrights Theatre’s Bordertown audio series is available to stream on Auscast Network and other podcast platforms.

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Each company was invited to nominate two playwrights to pen short monologues to be performed and filmed by actors, with the resulting stories to be livestreamed on multiple Facebook pages and Playwriting Australia’s YouTube channel over three nights from 2—5 July.

While there are a few famous faces from screen and stage – such as Nakkiah Lui, Jada Alberts, Jack Thompson, Miranda Tapsell, Danielle Cormack and Tasma Walton – there are also many less-well-known and emerging creatives involved.

“They were keen to get a huge range of voices to really feel like Australia had been captured demographically and culturally, and that the playwrights were speaking to the needs of everyday Australians,” Lucy says.

Each piece is about three minutes long, with the idea being that they will feel like a postcard communique. Playwrights were encouraged to respond to what’s happening in Australia right now, exploring what that reveals about our identity and what we might hope for the future.

Snapshots in time: Some of the actors involved in the Dear Australia project.

 

Many of the actors filmed the pieces in their own homes, some using mobile phones, but SA Playwrights Theatre collaborated with Flinders University to professionally film its two works – one written by Lucy and the other by the theatre company’s artistic director, Matt Hawkins.

Lucy’s monologue, Flesh, sees local actor Katie O’Reilly adopt the character of a lonely office worker.

“My piece is about loneliness and the human need for touch and some of the cracks in society that the pandemic has exposed,” Lucy says, explaining that while working from home has advantages, there can also be a social cost.

Matt’s story, Unconditional Love, is more globally focused and was filmed with actor Pontsho Nthupi giving voice to a young African woman living in Port Augusta.

Windmill nominated playwrights Elena Carapetis (Gods of Strangers) and Julianne O’Brien (co-writer of Rumpelstiltskin) for the Dear Australia project, while Brink put forward SA writer H Lawrence Sumner and Sydney-based Susan Rogers, who has previously collaborated with the company.

Playwriting Australia says the 50 short works will be a unique account of the current times and “a striking moment of national celebration and reflection”.

“Recent months have exposed and prised open many cracks in our society,” says Playwriting Australia interim executive chair David Berthold.

“These 50 micro works address major questions, allowing us to see into some of those cracks, but also inviting us to see light ahead.

“These stories are, in turn, confronting and comforting. Together, they are a revelation and unique celebration of Australian voices.”

Stephen Tongun records his part for SAPT’s Bordertown audio serial.

 

The team at South Australian Playwrights Theatre have also launched another initiative to help fill the void after COVID-19 restrictions closed theatres and forced the cancellation of what was to have been its biggest season yet.

Having already started a podcast last year, it decided to turn its attention to “audio serials”, beginning with Matt Hawkins’ comedic-tragedy Bordertown. The play, which has previously been presented in the theatre, tells the story of a country hairdresser who created Bob Hawke’s “silver bodgie” hairstyle and who encourages her daughter to head to Hollywood and become a star.

Bordertown was an obvious starting point for us [for the audio serials] because it’s comedic with moments of reflection – it’s really about the desire for fame and is told in quite a satirical way,” Lucy says.

“It was an opportunity for Matt to rewrite it … we’ve introduced a few more characters and made it more suitable for audio, with voiceovers and sound effects and music.”

The first episode was recorded at the height of the pandemic, with the sound recordist, director, actors and sound editor all in different locations and the actors all performing over Zoom. There are nine episodes in total, with the first six already available on Auscast Nework as well as other platforms like Spotify, iTunes an Google Podcast.

The next play in the audio series will be Lucy’s The Middle Way, which will be streamed in six parts from August.

Centred on a woman named Phillipa – an “SUV driving, Finnish Spitz-owning” mother of twins who is estranged from her own “evangelical” mother – she says it explores the identities we create for ourselves and those put upon us, as well as how the events of the past ricochet for years to come and the eternal pull of spiritual practices.

“It’s a drama with a little bit of comedy, whereas Matt’s is very much a comedy with a little bit of drama.”

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