The great white and male Australian battler is a character who has always been unique to the cultural mythology of our suburbia. Many of us can so easily relate to his story because it encompasses things that we tell each other about ourselves. Loyal. Hard working. Respectful of family and friends. Disrespectful of anything false or underhanded. An honest, blue collar larrikin just trying to make a living.
But in a more modern and intercultural suburban landscape, this portrait of the Australian hero is, to say the very least, looking a little outdated.
Commencing in February, the 2018 Civic Theatre season will be a testament to how diversified the heroic, contemporary Australian character has become. It will be a season of stories that are written across the less familiar faces of our present and past.
Across cultures that are colourful and ancient, but too often ignored and unseen. Against the inaccurate assumptions and expired stereotypes that are still attached to race, gender and the nature of theatrical storytelling itself.
LETTERS FROM LINDY
One of the more frequently made assumptions that the award-winning playwright Alana Valentine challenges is that the great white battler must inevitably be an Australian male. On July 7 at the Civic, Letters to Lindy brings to Newcastle the heartbreaking, candid story of a woman around whom an entirely different type of suburban Australian myth revolved.
Jeanette Cronin plays the once reviled, befallen and then later exonerated Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton – a woman whose name still reverberates with suspicion, religious prejudice and intrigue. As Cronin reads to the audience a selection of some of the 20,000 letters that the public wrote to her over the course of three decades, we are offered an insight into a private and painful struggle that large swathes of the Australian public refused to ever acknowledge or attempt to sympathise with.
“One of the things I love about this play,” says Civic Theatre manager Vanessa Hutchins, “is the attention Lindy gives to all of the letters themselves. She respects the hateful correspondence as much as she does the offerings of love and support. The letters themselves are haunting. They also give the audience an opportunity to hear her story from the mouth of a nation who at the time was absolutely obsessed with her.”
For an insight into a very different struggle, Hutchins points out that Prize Fighter also presents a fascinating example of a compelling and personal story of triumph over adversity. In a production to be presented in September at the Tuff’ N Up boxing gym in Newcastle West, Malawi-bred brothers Pacharo and Gideon Mzembe play young Congolese boxers wrestling with the spectres of their violent pasts. Playwright Future D Fidel, who himself had to flee a war-torn Congo before settling in Australia, dedicated the story of his main character Isa to an impressive and talented young man he once met in a Tanzanian refugee camp.
“This is a story about second chances” says the Zimbabwean-born, NIDA-trained Pacharo. “My character Isa has come to a place to escape his memories but eventually he learns that place itself is not enough to remove you of your demons.” For his brother, former rugby league player and New York Acting Academy graduate Gideon, Prize Fighter is a story about the distances that an enormous athletic ability can transport an otherwise disadvantaged individual.
“If you don’t have sporting talent in a country like Malawi or the Congo,” Gideon says, “then you don’t have the same access to education or opportunity. This is why sport is a great way to tell a story. It is the language of success that everybody understands.”
WHO AM I?
Who Am I?, which opens at the Civic on June 26, is yet another Australian play that explores the psychology of triumph and the sometimes obsessive pursuit of success.
Back in 1993, born and bred Newcastle performer Russell Cheek became every TV lover’s overnight hero by becoming champion of Sale of the Century. Who Am I? is an irreverent, but compelling foray into the mind of a quiz contestant under a unique and unbearable degree of pressure.
Not only has Cheek written and performed as himself in the show, he has assured that the play maintains the strongest possible link to Newcastle by enlisting fellow former Castanet Club member Steve Abbott (best known as Sandman) as his director.
Cheek speaks passionately about Who Am I? and the creative partnership between himself and Abbott that first made it possible.
“After dinner parties that the two of us would have with friends at my place in Newcastle, we would always find ourselves watching repeats of me winning the game show,” Cheek says.
“After this had happened a couple of times, Steve began to watch the watchers. He became fascinated by the nervous, edge-of-your-seat anticipation of our dinner guests.
“One night after everybody had left he turned to me and insisted that we do a show. It was a period of transition for both of us. I had time to write. The play emerged from that particular time.”
THE PLACE IN BETWEEN
Also in the 2018 season, Newcastle choreographer Cadi McCarthy explores the emotional intricacies of change and transition in The Place In Between. Presented by the local dance company Catapult and featuring a small, talented ensemble of young dancers, the performance measures the disturbances created when change, even when it is predictable and expected, descends upon us and compels us to act and make decisions.
The Place In Between is made more powerful by how carefully it exposes the intimate secrets we share only with ourselves.
They are all shows, Hutchins suggests, that celebrate the unflinching determination of the individual.
“So much of our season in 2018 is about strong and personal stories. Some are quite visceral, blood-sweat-and-tears stories. Others are about how a community can embrace the individual. But they all share with the audience something fascinating about the telling of the story itself.”