Current Issue #488

Podcasts and 14th century 'plague lit' inspire theatre-free theatre

Arran Beattie
Performer Arran Beattie during filming sessions for Decameron 2.0

While a return to conventional live theatre remains up in the air, a variety of local lockdown collaborations are now bearing fruit.

“I’m so sick of hearing those words – ‘strange, challenging, unprecedented, difficult times’. But they have been,” State Theatre Company artistic director Mitchell Butel tells The Adelaide Review.

2020’s long, legally-enforced curtain call has inspired a range of responses from Australia’s performing arts scene. Some organisations turned to online streaming, opening their vault to share archival recordings with shut-in viewers. Others peppered social media with small bites of makeshift content to keep a degree of audience engagement ticking over.

While State Theatre Company has dabbled in both, it now finds itself part of a wave of new work that was devised in lockdown, and is now cresting over audiences in a state of in-between. “There were other companies nationally who were quick out of the gate with Zoom play readings, and I loved what [Adelaide’s] Tiny Bricks and Rumpus did with As One by Philip Kavanaugh,” Butel says.

“But we’d been wanting to collaborate with ActNow Theatre for a while, and thought this would be a good way to come up with something that’s a little bit of a hybrid – not strictly Zoom-oriented, but somewhere between theatre and film.”

Seeded by the state government’s initial spread of COVID arts grants in April, which encouraged established arts orgs to take smaller companies under their wing, the result is a months-long creative project that enlists writers, actors and technical staff made idle by COVID-19.

John William Waterhouse, The Decameron, 1916, Lady Lever Art Gallery

“The hope is that even beyond this project there’ll be relationships formed within this group of writers.”

State Theatre Company artistic director Mitchell Butel

“We talked to [playwright] Emily Steel, who’s obviously very dear to both our companies, and it was her idea which was the unifying one for Decameron 2.0,” Butel explains.

Steel’s idea was to reinterpret The Decameron by 14th century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. The original, which encompasses 100 stories ostensibly told by 10 young people bunkering down outside of plague-afflicted Florence, offered a neat framework to gather a broad umbrella of stories from emerging and established storytellers in a 21st century pandemic.

“Essentially the original was about 10 reasonably privileged people who got out of Florence, and headed off for the hills, washed the floors during the day, cooked a bit and then told ten stories during the evenings,” Butel says.

So far, so similar to the COVID-era exodus of affluent city residents fleeing to their coastal weekenders. “Our desire was to flip that really, and write for voices that perhaps come from less privileged backgrounds – what happens if we hear 100 stories from the other side of the socioeconomic spectrum as well?”

Five core writers – Steel, Sally Hardy, Alex Vickery-Howe, Alexis West and Ben Brooker – will drive the 10-week project, along with a rotating group of established writers including Manal Younus, Kyron Weetra and Sarah Peters and emerging voices drawn from ActNow Theatre’s pool of First Nations, queer and culturally and linguistically diverse emerging artists.

Sia Duff
Playwright Emily Steel provided the inspiration for Decameron 2.0, and will also perform her 2017 play Rabbits as part of Theatre Republic’s PodPlay series

“It’s a lot of people,” Butel says of the group, who will meet at the start of each weekly cycle to discuss a theme or provocation, before getting to work creating a series of 100 short, free-form pieces and monologues to be performed and recorded by local actors. “The hope is that even beyond this project there’ll be relationships formed within this group of writers – they could be dramaturgs for each other’s work, sounding boards or mentors… the notion of collaboration goes beyond this project, hopefully.

“The hope is that we meet 100 different, new characters over the next 10 weeks.”

Decameron 2.0 isn’t the only new project emerging from lockdown, with Playwriting Australia announcing a similarly expansive monologue project on Monday dubbed Dear Australia, featuring 50 actors and 50 playwrights including Nakkiah Lui, Richard Frankland and South Australia’s Elena Carapetis responding to the current moment. Windmill Theatre Co. will also launch Honey, I’m Home, an animation-based webseries spearheaded by local artist Chris Edser, in July,

This week will see the launch of PodPlay, a new limited series from independent company Theatre Republic that will also feature Carapetis’ writing in its first installment, Helen.

“As a result of the pandemic we had to delay our main production of the year which was The Bleeding Tree by Angus Cerini, and we had this gap open up in our calendar,” director and Theatre Republic co-founder Corey McMahon explains.

“I had this idea rattling around in my head for a while that we could create an audio drama series via podcast, that utilised local playwrights and actors,” he says. Spurred on by another government grant, the result was PodPlay.

“Normally we’re looking for work which is really responding to the kind of conversations we’re having in our lives every day. We looked at maleness, and male identity and relationships with our first show Lines, and we’re looking at domestic violence in The Bleeding Tree,” he says. “But this was really a callout to playwrights, asking ‘what have you got sitting in the bottom draw that isn’t likely to hit a stage in South Australia, that will translate to audio?’. But it turns out these short works are quite potent and topical anyway.”

While perhaps shaking loose the bottom draw, the first PodPlay season certainly isn’t scraping the barrel with Philip Kavanaugh’s Patrick White Playwrights’ Award-winning two hander Little Borders, Duncan Graham’s No Exit From The Roof, Emily Steel’s Rabbits (performed by State Theatre in 2017), and Carapetis’ Helen, all performed by local actors in a makeshift studio in McMahon’s home.

“Helen Back has never been produced, and I’m not sure if it ever will be,” Carapetis says of her ‘lost’ second play from which the Anna Steen-narrated Helen is lifted. “The whole play deals with how woman are objectified, and that women have historically been objectified into powerlessness.”

On the page, the excerpted monologue called for special effects to mimic plastic surgery being performed live on a performer’s face, before the audience is whisked away to explore the patient’s traumatic memories. “Having said that out loud, I realised what a huge feat of technology and special effects that would be,” she admits. “So in a way, it was great to adapt it for people listening, because their imaginations do all that for you.

Sia Duff
Theatre Republic co-founders Corey McMahon and Manda Flett

“Corey and I just sat down and said, ‘right, how can we tell this story about where this woman is through sound and through music?'”

Elena Carapetis

“Corey and I just sat down and said, ‘right, how can we tell this story about where this woman is through sound and through music, and so audiences aren’t too conscious of it?’. That way we do it sort of by stealth – create mood and light and dark and shift locations. That was a really fun exercise to do.”

The radio drama has been around the best part of a century, but the format has seen a revival in the age of podcasts. In the US, Spotify-owned podcasting studio Gimlet has won praise for scripted series like Homecoming, later adapted into a TV series starring Julia Roberts.

Closer to home, an audio spinoff of locally-produced SBS spy parody Danger 5 was recently released by Amazon’s Audible, while South Australian Playwrights Theatre was quick off the COVID bat, serialising an audio production of Matt Hawkins’ tragi-comedy Bordertown via the Auscast Network.

“What I really liked about Homecoming too was there was an extra podcast around the dramaturgy of sound,” Carapetis says. “The budget for that show would have been a lot more than we had to play with, but one of the reasons I admire Corey so much is that he’s willing to adapt. He’s a real flag-waver of artists’ need to adapt, because we have, and we will. And he’s right; I look around the country and see everyone doing their best.”

“My taste in terms of audio drama is really broad – that sort of harks back to childhood where I was brought up on a lot of BBC radio drama, which is the forerunner to what we now listen to as podcasts,” McMahon says. “But that being said, loving it and listening to it is different to actually doing it, so it’s been a bit of a baptism of fire. But a really exciting journey of discovery, and it really helps working with some of the top-notch actors and writers in this town.”

“Nothing will replace being in a space with other people, watching something performed live – there’s a reason theatre has been like that since people first sat around a campfire and told a story,” Carapetis says. “But in the meantime people have been really smart in the way they’ve gone ‘okay, what other form can this story take?’ And in the case of that piece from Helen Back, I think that is the genre in which it belongs. It belongs in radio, not on the stage.”

Because ultimately, whether it’s across a stage, campfire, podcast app or the parlour of a 14th century Italian villa, storytelling is nothing if not resilient.

PodPlay: Helen is available now via Apple Podcasts

Decameron 2.0 will be available online from July

Walter Marsh

Walter Marsh

Digital Editor
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Walter is a writer and editor living on Kaurna Country.

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