Anica Boulanger-Mashberg takes a look at Two Pairs of Shorts

7 Apr 2009


The newly-formed Tasmanian Theatre Company has a commitment to bringing Tasmanian works to the stage, and a vision which also incorporates strong support for new theatre works. At the launch for the flagship state theatre company (Tasmania’s first professional, adult, text-based theatre company since Zootango, which closed more than ten years ago), artistic director Charles Parkinson proudly announced that the new company would dedicate its energies to telling Tasmanian stories and employing Tasmanian theatre artists. As the company heads into its second year of existence, it is exciting to see a project like Two Pairs of Shorts actually manifesting this commitment.

The four short plays in this program are the result of a project commissioned by the Tasmanian Theatre Company and the Australian Script Centre as part of a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Centre. Each of the writers spent one week in residency in a rural Tasmanian community, their mission was to create a short work somehow connected to that place. The participants – Finegan Kruckemeyer, Adam Grossetti, Sue Smith, and Debra Oswald – are all established stage writers, with varying degrees of connection to Tasmania.

Although there were few guidelines regarding style, content, or even setting, all four playwrights chose to set their stories fairly firmly in the communities they visited, and all four stories prominently feature ‘outsiders’ to those communities; in some cases a visitor, in other cases a local who returns to their community after a time away. This suggests perhaps that each of the playwrights felt very conscious of their own outsider perspectives in the small communities they visited. It also suggests that the process was a valuable one not just in producing four strong works, but in initiating a cultural and emotional dialogue between the writers and the places they visited.

It is interesting that each of the plays also explicitly explores the characters’ varying sense of place as central elements of the narrative. In Kruckemeyer’s play, The Exceptional Beauty of the First and Last, Nick, an ex-resident, returns to Swansea and negotiates a history he thought he had left behind, coming to terms with the transience of life in the process. Nick’s relationship with his old lover Evie, who has stayed in Swansea, opens a discussion about their conflicting (or sometimes shared) experiences of their home town. Grossetti’s Sex Death & Fly Fishing is a portrait of a young man, Tony, as he comes to terms with the impending death of a loved one, and at the same time re-evaluates his connection to place (Grossetti’s residency was in Miena and he sets his play partly there and partly in Tony’s north Queensland home). Smith, in Zeehan, came up with The Seagull, a play intimately concerned with the pervasive influence of the mining culture in this town, and with the impact that an old mining disaster has – on even the most transitory resident. Oswald’s Bull Kelp invites a curiously astute outsider onto King Island and briefly into the lives of Kim (recently returned home to the Island from New York) and Brendan.

Most of the characters, in each of these works, express a passionate ambivalence about their home (be it adopted, temporary, or otherwise), oscillating between a nostalgia for the comforts of small communities, and a resentment about the claustrophobia of those same communities. These stories are an intriguing snapshot of a contemporary fascination with place. Why is it so important to us to connect with place? In these four writers’ works, we begin to see how place defines person.

While these four writers respectfully and insightfully explore specific Tasmanian communities in detail, the emphasis on place never restricts the narrative. The characters, even at this stage of drafting, are well-drawn and varied. The stories are of love, sex, death, and charmingly quirky Scots who drift in to shore with the kelp – you know, all those universal experiences. It seems that a focus on place might be one way of opening up a play to broader themes.

Rehearsed readings like Two Pairs of Shorts are a mutual privilege to all involved. For the writers, readings lift a work off the page, giving an indication of how structure, dialogue, and character are working: an incomparably helpful stage in the process of redrafting and editing a play. For theatre companies, readings can ‘audition’ new plays. (In this case the Tasmanian Theatre Company already have a degree of commitment to these works, having commissioned them. But in other instances the works are exposed to numerous potential directors and companies. An example is Playwriting Australia’s National Play Festival, which also presents readings under the Ten Days on the Island umbrella this year.) For actors, readings provide much-needed employment, exposure, networking, and opportunities experiment with new works. And for audiences, readings offer a glimpse into The Secret Life of The Play.

In Two Pairs of Shorts, all fifteen characters are performed by five versatile actors: Carrie McLean, Fiona Stewart, Guy Hooper, Jane Johnston, and Steven Jones, with the first four also rotating in the role of director. The actors are all proficient in their very economical preparations of character and their nuanced interactions with each other, even while they are still working from a script. The absence of lighting and set design, costumes, props, or other technical production elements allows the scripts to communicate their raw potential, and here the writers’ language-crafting skills are clearly illuminated. Rehearsed readings are a wonderful advocate for the power of text-based theatre.

These four plays are currently in the second stage of a three-year cycle at the Tasmanian Theatre Company; a process of commissioning, developing, and producing new works. These plays, now in their second draft, are presented as a series of readings – including in their locations of inspiration – during Ten Days. The writers will then go back to their scripts for the next drafts, and we can look forward to seeing fully staged productions of some or all of the works in the Tasmanian Theatre Company’s 2010 season.

Anica Boulanger-Mashberg is a Hobart-based performer and writer.

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