A year of firsts for Black Swan State Theatre Company
Artistic Director, Clare Watson, wants the audience to dictate the conversations
Black Swan is set to deliver an especially engaging program for its 2018 season.
While a visit to the theatre can often be a singular experience, Black Swan’s Artistic Director, Clare Watson, has ensured a shared and extended dialogue over the coming year with The Conversations, a program that pairs often disparate theatre productions that merge, bump, grind and connect via shared and overlaying themes.
“Great theatre should invite us to engage with it and its ideas and therefore create conversations between the audience that sees it”
Watson explains. “In some ways inviting the audience to have a conversation felt like a fun and really dynamic way of putting together a whole year.
“The idea of programming works in conversation with one another, that didn’t necessarily agree with one another, meant they could create some frisson and rub in terms of theme and characters. In terms of questions that we ask ourselves once we see the shows.”
The first pairing is immediately conversational, to say the least, and most certainly in the fly-in-fly-out culture that has deeply affect the lives of so many Western Australians this century. Raw Lawler’s Australian classic, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (May 5-20) and Taylor Mac’s contemporary gender-bender comedy, Hir (May 10-27), will be paired together under the song title, The Boys Are Back In Town.
“The conversation is about masculine identities,” Watson says, “and the shifting nature of masculine identities in the contemporary age. These are two works that speak to that, but in different ways. In both of them, the men are returning to a domestic environment.”
Playwright Ray Lawler, now 97, wrote Summer of the Seventeenth Doll from his own experiences and starred in the role of Barney in its debut back in 1955. Black Swan’s production will mean that every state theatre company in the country will have staged Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in his lifetime. This is a first, as is the fact that highly-acclaimed WA actor, Kelton Pell, is the first Aboriginal man to play the lead role of Roo.
“This particular work, in this particular city, resonates probably more than it ever has before, because so many people are touched by the FIFO experience,” Watson explains. “And that’s essentially what this play is about. Two men who are canecutters that return to meet their women at the end of each cutting season. It absolutely looks at the role of masculinity and their sense of worth around their work, but also how it relates to their downtime. That’s been the cultural experience of so many people in this state.”
Previously staged in Australia to sell-out seasons and to high acclaim at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre and Melbourne’s Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Hir (a gender-neutral pronoun of ‘his’ and ‘her’), examines the return home of Isaac from three years’ tour-of-duty in Afghanistan. His once-tough father is emasculated by the effects of a stoke; his mother is now a gender studies guru, who returns some previous cruelties to her husband; his younger sister is now Max, his younger brother. Hilarity and dysfunctionality ensue.
“Anything that feels complete or stable is thrown completely askew in his particular world,” Watson says, “and it does actually make you question how arbitrary our notions of gender are. Quiet deliberately, it’s done in a really funny way. It’s the most cutting-edge work you’ll see in the season and it’s not for the faint-hearted, but it’s hilarious and it does make some incredibly salient points about the notion of binary gender.
“It really is a blistering attack on the patriarchy from a very interesting American writer, but it’s been adored by Australian audiences already, so it’s not overly challenging, partly because of the humour. I’ve described it as ‘Roseanne on acid’, because it almost has that feeling of being an American sit-com, where everything’s just a little bit twisted.”
Hir explores a range of ideas around gender, at a time when the Weinstein Effect and the #metoo movement have ushered in an undeniable global shift in sensitivities and equality. In a year of firsts, a transgender actor will perform a lead role in a Black Swan production (echoed by You Know We Belong Together, a first with a person of intellectual disability, Julia Hales, leading the creative process).
With works paired because of the tension that is created between them, it will no doubt spark discussion. Watson is looking forward to the conversations that will follow but has no interest in dictating them.
“That will be part of the thrill for this year,” she notes, “just hearing what kind of conversations are elicited from what has been put in front of an audience. This manner of programming will continue, and I think I’ll hear from the audience the sorts of ideas that they would like to see challenged or provoked on the stage in future.”
This article first appeared in The Guardian, 27 March 2018.