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October 22, 2021

Stories about young people

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The award-winning Australian play Sugarland, created by national youth theatre company Australian Theatre for Young People and inspired by the people of Katherine and the Northern Territory, comes to NORPA at Lismore City Hall this week.

The Echo spoke with artistic director Fraser Corfield.


Tell me how Sugarland came to be. How was the writing informed by the genuine experiences of young people in the Territory?

Sugarland was born from a very ambitious program of residencies conducted in Katherine over three years. Separate from developing this script we ran a series of workshops with young people from the two high schools. Our original intention was to develop a musical, but over the years that morphed (as these things often do) into writing and filming original hip-hop songs and film clips that were presented at the local cinema. Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair used the relationships that were developed with young people during those workshops, along with wider consultation with adults who work with young people in Katherine, as the foundation of the show. Then as the play was developed it was constantly workshopped with people from the community to get feedback on the truth of the language, the characters and the situations.

Why do you feel it’s important for these stories to be told?

ATYP has been working in remote communities for many years. Often we would send artists to work in these communities and they would be overwhelmed by the hardship experienced by some of the teenagers they worked with. The common statement was, ‘I never knew there were places like this in Australia’. We wanted to create a play that could share with wider Australia what it’s like for some young people growing up in towns such as Katherine.

How did you approach directing Sugarland – what feel did you go for with the actors, and with the show in general?

In many respects Sugarland is a very simple show. That’s probably why it is so successful. The production lives and dies on the relationships among the characters. In bringing this show to life, David Page and I focused on making sure the relationships look, sound and feel as real as possible. We worked with the actors to understand what each character is concealing at any given moment. We want the audience to intrinsically understand these characters because they remind them of people they know or have grown up with.

How have you styled it for stage?

The show is very simply staged on a set that looks a little like a sunken skate park. It could be at home in a city, a big country town or the middle of Australia. We’ve kept the staging simple to focus on the story.

What were the key themes you developed in the show?

The key theme of this play is resilience. Though some of these characters are experiencing very difficult circumstances they never feel sorry for themselves. There is a sense of humour flowing through the play that reflects our extraordinary capacity to connect with others and find joy even at the saddest times.

How much of the show is communicated beyond the script? Meaning the subtext, as very often explicit dialogue doesn’t work when young people are as you say ‘sometimes painfully inarticulate’?

That’s what I was referring to when I said our focus was on ensuring the relationships among these characters feel real. It’s what the characters choose not to say that makes this play so compelling. The dialogue is often sparse and very simple but we understand the relationships among characters are beautifully complex and difficult.

How is this show particularly important for young people, and in particular young people in theatre?

It’s important on a couple of levels. On the one hand it gives voice to a group of Australians who are rarely represented on Australian stages. I have just spent today running workshops in a boarding house here in Katherine for young people attending school from remote communities. The sheer joy and appreciation they have expressed for this story is overwhelming. For young people in the rest of Australia, Sugarland shows that powerful, evocative stories can be told anywhere. We all have a story to tell and we all deserve to share our stories.

Are there enough pieces out there for emerging actors and writers?

No. I believe theatre suffers terribly from this stuffy middle-class middle-aged approach. We force our young people to read and study adult plays featuring adult characters going through adult issues. If a young person wants to listen to music they can find songs written specifically for their age, their experience. The same with art, or poetry, or books or dancing. But to teach them drama we subject them to Shakespeare, or Brecht, or something staged in the last ten years by a professional theatre company with an average audience age of 50. At ATYP we believe the first play every young person reads or performs or sees should be specifically written for their age group. We need far more complex, interesting, professionally developed plays for young artists and audiences.

Tell me what we should expect for the Lismore show.

I hope you will be moved. That you will walk out of the theatre thinking about our country from the perspective of someone whom you may not have considered before. I hope you spend a few moments looking at the world through the eyes of a teenager from Katherine, and that you find that experience unsettling but deeply rewarding.

Tuesday at 7.30pm and Wednesday at 11am. NORPA at Lismore City Hall. $22–42. Bookings 1300 066 772 or norpa.org.au.

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