National Play Festival - An Overview in 3 Acts plus Epilogue

15 Apr 2009

Company Name: Playwriting Australia
Venue: The Backspace, Hobart and various locations around Tasmania
Date: 26 March – 4 April
Reviewer: Mark Cutler

ACT 1: The Setting

Hosting this festival is PlayWriting Australia (PWA), the national peak body working with playwrights and the theatre industry to support, develop and promote writing for performance. This year’s festival in Hobart is only the second, following on from Brisbane in 2008. PWA has assembled an impressive collection of artists, supporters, plays and commentators to dissect and develop Australian playwriting. Falling under the wide umbrella of Tasmania’s biennial Ten Days on the Island Festival, the National Play Festival (I’m nearly festivaled-out already) is nevertheless a self-contained opportunity for the industry to take stock, connect and celebrate new work by some of Australia’s best playwrights.

In the program blurb, PWA Artistic Director Chris Mead says:

“Tasmania occupies a very particular place in our national imagination – and for the two weeks of the National Play Festival it will become the engine room of new writing for the theatre. Come on, stoke the fire.”

His advice was clearly acted upon ... how hot was it at the Backspace during the Showcase!

Even local Arts Minister Michelle O’Byrne chimed in with her blessing:

“Tasmania has a rich literary history of its own and a unique character that has inspired many intriguing tales,” she says. “We warmly welcome the 2009 National Play Festival’s Showcase Season to our shores.”

The main venue was the Backspace in Hobart, but in order to reach a bigger audience, the festival travelled around the state with readings and workshops in Zeehan, Franklin, Stanley, Georgetown Bridport, Swansea, Launceston and Dunalley. Events ranged from workshops and performances to the keynote address from Rhoda Roberts, a young writers’ studio, one-on-one with playwrights Hannie Rayson and Angela Betzien, conversations with writers Sue Smith and Steve Rodgers and even plays for breakfast at Fullers Bookshop in Hobart. The term broad sweep doesn’t do the program justice.

ACT 2: The Playwrights

The Showcase season of six plays was the central point of the festival and by deduction the six playwrights were the epicentre - Patricia Cornelius, Marcel Dorney, Van Badham, Lally Katz, Jonathan Ari Lander and Elsie Hearst. All have extensive credentials.

Patricia Cornelius’s plays include Love, Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?, The Call and Cunning. Her honours include the Patrick White Playwright’s Award, a Gold Awgie, The Jill Blewett Award and a Green Room Award.

Marcel Dorney’s works include New Royal and Thieves Like Us and he has received a Matilda Award and a Brisbane Lord Mayor’s Fellowship to study in St. Petersburg.

Van Badham’s plays include The Gabriels, Bedtime for Bastards, Petrograd and Letters to W. Among her many accolades she is the recipient of the British National Student Drama Festival Best Play award and the Sunday Times Harold Hobson Award.

Lally Katz studied playwriting at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Her works include Frankenstein, The Black Swan of Trespass and Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart. She has also received a New York International Fringe Festival Producer’s Choice Award.

Jonathan Ari Lander currently tutors at UNSW in world history and Zionism. Lander’s plays include Broken Dreams, Redemption and Ezekiel’s Song. He was recently accepted into the 2008-2009 Griffin Writer’s Residency.

Elise Hearst is a young writer whose career was kick-started in 2006 when she won an award for the Monash University National Playwrights Competition for Apple. After relocating to London she has had work performed at the Soho Theatre, Hampstead Theatre and the Trafalgar Studios.

ACT 3: The Plays

Each of the six plays in the Showcase was hand-picked by PlayWriting Australia. They were then given two weeks of intensive rehearsals by some of the country’s finest actors and directors. The performances were polished readings, presented to the public for the first time.

The Berry Man, to quote playwright Patricia Cornelius, is about growing things and about growing up – taking all the elements of the past and letting them go, like scattering seed. It’s also about war and the effects on young men caught up in the nightmare. The cast included Ivan Donato, Margaret Harvey, Colin Moody and Bill Young. Director Susie Dee and Dramaturg Sam Strong.

Marcel Dorney’s Hypatia takes us on a historical journey to Alexandria when the greatest repository of knowledge in the West, the Library of Alexandria, was run by Hypatia. Her defence of the library and her subsequent death at the hands of a fanatical Christian mob in 415 AD provides the crux of this ancient story.
The cast consisted of Alan Andrews, Wadih Dona, Anita Hegh, Colin Moody, Yalin Ozucelik and Bill Young. Direction by Jon Halpin and dramaturg Sam Strong.

Three Short Plays About the Same Two People by Van Badham is about one couple, Tom and Eve, but also about Tom and new squeeze Manpreet. All are cool but a past incident in a London nightclub won’t let Tom and Eve move on.With Sibylla Budd, Baylea Davis and Chris Pitman. Directed by Tanya Denny and dramaturgs Polly Rowe and Sam Strong.

Return to Earth is Lally Katz’s examination of return and expectation. The play centres on Alice and her return to the small coastal town of Tathra where she grew up. Her parents have an agenda, her brother has an agenda and so too does her old school friend. But for Alice it’s more about falling in love and a shot at redemption. Director Jon Halpin, dramaturgs Sam Strong and Polly Rowe. Cast included Katherine Cullen, Sibylla Budd, Alan Andrews, Noreen Le Mottee, Yalin Ozucelik and Chris Pitman.

Jonathan Ari Lander wrote Revolution while teaching a university course on South East Asian history and reflecting on the anti-communist purge between 1965-66. The play is set in Australia as a new political force, New Australia, begins to take hold. How much is charismatic leader Imaduddin willing to personally sacrifice for his broad political aims? It’s a political thriller with an intellectual soul.
Cast included Wadih Dona, Baylea Davis, Michael Edgar, Anita Hegh, Xavier Samuel and Camilla Ah Kin. Director Tanya Denny and Dramaturg Polly Rowe.

Author Elise Hearst describes Dirtyland as a stark portrait of human frailty, resilience and treachery. It is also about massacre and its lingering impact. But despite these daunting themes the play has an element of playfulness and innocence.
With Margaret Harvey, Noreen Le Mottee, Xavier Samuel, Ivan Donato, Michael Edgar Katherine Cullen and Camilla Ah Kin. Directed by Susie Dee and Dramaturg Polly Rowe.


If only we could accurately measure the impact the National Play Festival will have on Tasmania. By its very nature though, such precise measurement is of course impossible. But in bringing such a diverse offering to the state it can safely be assumed that the Tasmanian theatre community will reap benefits.

Having access to established writers, watching accomplished actors at work, seeing how directors begin to shape new work and even having the chance to see that very same work change in the process is a rich opportunity. At the very least local crews were employed and tertiary theatre students were given exposure to best practise by being placed on productions.

However it is also important to ask what did the PlayWriting Australia get out of Tasmania? And did its relationship to Ten Days on the Island hamper or help the National Play Festival? I suspect the relationship was a healthy one. For starters the NPF was given a marketing boost by appearing in the widely distributed and very expensive Ten Days program. Also by coming to Hobart and touring to regional areas, PlayWriting Australia continues its charter to promote and foster Australian playwriting.

You can bet your last dollar the NPF will be in Sydney or Melbourne next year as it probably should, because the NPF is still in its infancy and big city exposure will help to cement its reputation. But not before we see some tangible evidence that the process undergone during the time in Tasmania translates into seasons for all or most of the six plays showcased.

Mark Cutler is a Hobart based writer/performer.

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