Black Saturday, Ash Wednesday, Black Tuesday, Black Friday, Black Thursday, Red Tuesday. As multi-award-winning playwright Campion Decent notes, these terms are “blistered” into Australians’ collective consciousness. Long celebrated for bringing “gutsy, dry-witted yarns” (Hallett and Sykes) to the stage, Decent’s verbatim works inform discourses on crisis, ecology and identity. In addition to his 2006 HotHouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company play Embers, a dissection of the “monster blaze” that “ripped through” (Peard) the Australian state of Victoria in 2003, Decent’s work also includes The Campaign (2018), a reflection on the “venomous” politics and “individual acts of bravery” (Seymour Centre) that shaped the fight for Gay Law Reform in Tasmania (the original home of Green politics, Milne). As he prepares his latest play, a scrupulous history of bushfire “through the lens of 2019–20’s ‘Black Summer,’” Decent shares his reflections on the agency of theatre-makers as they encounter emergency, devastation, and psychological and social trauma. Drawing on broader research on ecocritical theatre, the politics of performance, and environmental crisis, this article provides a case study of how a “climate of attention” (Christopher and Grodin) is being stirred in Australia. A special focus will be textual and structural approaches to verbatim writing, and specifically Decent’s successful engagement with ordinary citizens and diverse audiences, many of whom, to quote Vicky Angelaki, teeter “between improvement or decline, catastrophe or salvation” (2). As a leading Australian playwright, Decent both disturbs and affectively invites audiences to consider the nation’s true stories of crisis, rendering them active and collective agents in the struggle against social and political dysfunction.
Keywords: Theatre, verbatim, ecology, crisis, Australia, campaign
In two regions of Australia, at two different moments in recent history, communities came together to face a crisis. One was a “monster blaze” (Peard) that roared through the Victorian bushland and devastated homes, livestock, wildlife, farmland and almost everything else in its wake. The other was a concerted push to decriminalize sexual activity between consenting adult males in the state of Tasmania. The Victorian fires of 2003 lasted 59 days, “burnt 1.1 million hectares of public and private land, destroyed 9,000 livestock, 41 houses, 3,000 kilometers of fencing, and innumerable manmade and natural assets” (Decent, Embers 20). As late as the mid-1990s, the Tasmanian Criminal Code held that homosexuality was “punishable with up to 21 years imprisonment” (Decent, The Campaign 14). Gay Law Reform had passed elsewhere in Australia during the 1970s and 80s (“Timeline: 22 Years”), in England in 1967 (Schraer and D’Urso), and in certain states of America in 1962 (PBS American Experience). Inspired by world-leading environmental activism in Tasmania, more than 90 individuals submitted to 130 arrests that led them to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations and, eventually, to the High Court of Australia. As the ABC reports, “Tasmania’s Upper House finally passed gay law reform by one vote. It came into effect on May 13, 1997” (“Timeline: 22 Years”).
Playwright Campion Decent tells the stories of the Victorian fires and the fight for Gay Law Reform in two independent verbatim plays: Embers (2006) and The Campaign (2018). Embers premiered at HotHouse Theatre in Albury-Wodonga before transferring to the Sydney Theatre Company and touring nationally. The Campaign premiered at Salamanca Arts Centre in Tasmania and was later staged in Melbourne and Sydney. Decent is a leading figure in the Australian LGBTQIA+ movement and performing arts, whose plays examine what “glues” people together in times of crisis. Having been Artistic Director of HotHouse Theatre, Literary Manager at Sydney Theatre Company, and Chair of the Australian National Playwrights’ Centre, he has also won numerous awards, including an AWGIE and the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Embers and the Rodney Seaborn Playwrights Award for Unholy Ghosts (a tragicomedy about the “undignified death” of parents). Decent’s work has been praised as “stirring,” “character-rich” (Hallett), and an example of the “broader benefits” of airing stories to “heal trauma” (Reich).
This article includes an interview with Decent, who is currently preparing a new verbatim work on the 2019–20 bushfires in Australia, known as Black Summer. Titled Unprecedented, the play rages at the fault lines in Australia’s response to a devastating new scale of environmental disaster, which “burnt 19 million hectares,” “killed or displaced” “three billion” animals and “added 900 million tonnes to the nation’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions” (Decent Unprecedented). Decent shares insights on writing crisis in the Australian context, aesthetic concerns and audience engagement, the significance of “place” in his verbatim theatre, local and global impacts, and theatre’s role in fighting for a future.
A growing body of international theatre work addresses late twentieth- and earth twenty-first-century ecological crises, as well as “crises of identity and relationship” (May 12). Vicky Angelaki observes that “crisis has been a recurring term in the post-2000 period,” closely connected to political, financial, and environmental contexts (1), and ensuing “social and political emergencies and dysfunctions” under neoliberalism (4). At their “grassroots,” as Downing Cless writes, ecological plays “run the spectrum from particular to universal . . . [and] have a firm basis in community, either a particular place or groupings of people” (80). The people of Embers and The Campaign, who fought against fire or fought for their rights to equality and dignity, shared “fervent” hopes and “urgent” goals (Cless 100). Teetering, as Angelaki describes, “between improvement or decline, catastrophe or salvation” (2), the participants’ voices coalesce in theatrical form to offer dialogue not only on “the social conditions of marginalized groups” but “ecological basics” and the impact of manmade disaster “on the land and the family” (May 89–90).
Decent’s renderings also convey a “felt attachment” (Malpas In the Brightness 37) to the rural and geographically isolated landscapes of Victoria and Tasmania. As places of both “astonishing” (Decent, Personal interview) beauty and an eerie pastoral darkness (Malpas “Spirits of Place”), they provide a “ground and framework for thinking” (Malpas In the Brightness 1). From these places comes a “patterning” (Decent, Personal interview) of spoken images and theatrical beats which enable an “ecocritical purchase,” to borrow from Carl Lavery, inviting an “affecting of bodies; both individually and collectively” (Lavery 3).
Decent drew inspiration from verbatim works including “Aftershocks by Paul Brown and the Workers’ Cultural Action Committee about the Newcastle earthquake of 1989” and “Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, about the brutal killing of a gay man in Wyoming” (Embers 6). A “type of performance based on actual words spoken by ‘real people’” (Garson 4) and “transcribed,” “edited or recontextualised by a dramatist” (Norton-Taylor 9), verbatim theatre has expanded considerably since the 1990s (Garson 4) and is sometimes thought of as a blend of documentary/journalism and theatre (Bernbaum 201; Norton-Taylor 10, 62–63, 101). “Much has been written,” as Emma Cox notes, “on verbatim theatre’s peculiar predicament as a mode of representation” (32). In her analysis of Ros Horin’s Through the Wire (2004–05), about Australian asylum seekers, Cox warns that verbatim plays can become “entangled with aesthetic concerns” in ways that complicate truth/truthfulness—especially when works “structure” or “position” audience responses (31).
Stephen J. Bottoms’s well-known critique of David Hare’s The Permanent Way (2003) and Stuff Happens (2004), and Robin Soan’s Talking to Terrorists (2005) urges for a “self-conscious emphasis on the vicissitudes of textuality and discourse,” and an acknowledgement of “highly selective manipulation of opinion and rhetoric” (57–58). However, writers such as Caroline Wake note that “verbatim theatre has ties to some of the west’s oldest theatrical traditions” (71) and can be especially successful in conjuring “a locality and authenticity through its strong sense of place” (113). Sculpted through the “hard work” of the dramatist, as Richard Norton-Taylor argues, verbatim plays are held to account on their promise not to “misrepresent” (10). Though they will always convey (like all informational texts) an inherent bias, the use of real voices is ultimately a “technique” or “method” (10) used to varying degrees in all drama (Norton-Taylor 10).
Vinson Cunningham recently praised the powerfulness of “compressing hundreds of hours of interviews” about “high-profile civic events” into what he calls “a chorus of sensibilities, curated into a higher coherence.” Speaking of Anna Deavere Smith’s work on the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Cunningham sees verbatim work as being capable of inviting audiences “into a more complete understanding of themselves.” Decent explains that it’s about finding “the fulcrum in the story” (Personal interview). In The Campaign for example, he dramatizes “key turning points over the nine-year period of the campaign, not the entire campaign.” “Flashpoints” highlighted in Embers and Unprecedented, are similarly chosen to “open up a broader discussion on environment, land management, and climate change” (Decent, Personal interview).
In the conversation below, Decent elucidates how he purposefully draws attention to the artificiality of representation through specific devices and diegetic techniques, the use of which does not prevent audiences from sharing in a presentation of “individual truths” (Decent, Personal interview). “Revelatory” and deeply moving stagings of Embers have seen those who personally lived through the horror of the fires yelling out during performances: “That’s right!” and “Too true!” (Reich). As Kath Melbourne wrote of Decent’s The Campaign when it opened in Tasmania, “At the end of the play the audience rose in unison . . . you could see the tears streaming down faces, and smiles breaking through them as we applauded the cast, director, writer—and importantly those in the audience who were the inspiration for the work.” The Campaign premiered less than a year after marriage equality had passed in Australia. Debates around teaching gender diversity in Australian educational institutions were also at their “boiling point” (Decent, Personal interview).
Embers and The Campaign are very much grassroots productions, whose stories sit in conversation with international dialogues of activism and ecological response. Decent’s writing is part of an Australian “eco-canon” (Jacobson qtd. in Cless 79) which includes (among many others) Griffith University’s 2015 “eco-critical exploration of the Australian landscape” in Dust (Hassall 272) and indigenous dance-theatre company Marrugeku’s Cut the Sky (Murphy-Oates). His depictions of “hope and loss” and care for “non-human inhabitants” (New Play Exchange) also connect with dissections of ecology and identity beyond the continent, such as the 2022 Ecodrama Playwrights Festival award winner Transmissions in Advance of the Second Great Dying, by Jessica Huang.
Embers and The Campaign furthermore inform a history of ecology/activism plays, such as those about logging by Seattle Public Theatre and California’s Ukiah Players Theatre (in the 1990s; Cless 80) and Kalamu ya Salaam’s The Breath of Life (1993), about the poisoning of air and water at a petrochemical plant (Cless 92–93). As Decent’s comments indicate, Embers and The Campaign frame dialectical discussions “with the world outside the theatre” (Garson 46) and inspire ongoing reflection on the interplay and perceptual mirroring between the natural environment and human triumph and tragedy. Most importantly, they “define and expand the sense of community and collective imagination, ethics, responsibility, empathy, and action needed” (Ahmadi 5), from the perspective of “one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change in the developed world” (Latimer).
FEMALE 1: The thing I remember most about the day it finally arrived was the noise. It was the most phenomenal noise.20–22
MALE 2: Like a dragon.
FEMALE 2: Like a train.
MALE 3: Like a jet coming up the valley.
MALE 1: F1-11s flying over.
FEMALE 3: That sickening roar.
MALE 4: You never forget it.
MALE 1: And the sky—
FEMALE 1: There was no sky.
. . .
MALE 4: A swirling mass of white, brown, red, black towering above.
FEMALE 2: A bubbling cauldron, black ash and crap.
FEMALE 1: You could hear this roar and you could see this red.
MALE 2: The Devil’s pit.
FEMALE 2: That’s hell. That’s what hell looks like.
In your upcoming play, Unprecedented, you refer to “fire” as being a “prominent feature” in Australians’ “physical and psychic landscapes” in Australia. What first drew you to the idea of writing about the crisis of bushfires?
I hadn’t ever been in a bushfire, so it wasn’t through “lived experience” that I felt compelled to write about it. But I remember, growing up, there were multiple bushfires and, occasionally, ash would drop into the backyard and the sky would turn to black. Back then it wasn’t a “city” concern per se, but there was a sense of lurking danger that “something” could turn against us. I’ve always been fascinated by the elements, their magnificence and their potential to be destructive. Like fire. But what really drew me to write about bushfire was the idea of community.
How did the project of Embers begin?
The local health service in Victoria had contacted HotHouse Theatre (in Albury-Wodonga) and said, “Look, we’d really like to involve the arts in the ‘people recovery’ process of the fires.” We started chatting and I said, “Why don’t we do it as verbatim? It gives people permission to talk.” I was accompanied by Les Hume, a support worker, who was also (years ago) a volunteer firefighter. He was a local and really critical to the process, especially in terms of ongoing follow-up to help the people affected. My concern was to gather a ripping yarn and to represent the people accurately—to represent the diversity of that experience as accurately as I could.
In the epilogue, one of the characters says:
It’s big because we say it’s big. It’s fast because we say it’s fast. It’s our perception of what a fire is. We happened to put a hut in the road and we happened to want to live in that hut. But fire’s a natural thing. And a massive cleansing’s gone on. . . . It’s normal. It just happens, this time, to be in our lifetime.Decent, Embers 89
How does the play help us to reflect on the history of crisis and the history of climate change in Australia?
I loved that epilogue because Tess was the one person I talked to who stepped back from what she’d experienced and looked at it slightly more philosophically. In a filmic sense, we get a slightly wider shot at the end. At that time people were more likely to refer to the “dry continent,” and suggest “well, we’ve always had drought.” There was almost an unarticulated climate denial. In terms of crisis more generally, there was increased awareness of terrorism [one of the characters refers to administrators as “textbook terrorists”] and an accumulation of disasters. We’d also had the war in Iraq and the Tampa [migrant] crisis, so these events were percolating. What wasn’t percolating so much was the word “climate” and the articulation that we see today of “climate change.”
In Unprecedented you address the fact that even during Black Summer and the official inquiries that followed, climate change wasn’t treated as a given?
The terms of reference for the Royal Commission were set by the federal government, so climate change had to be acknowledged. It was a much more contentious issue in a separate Senate inquiry. The state inquiries varied in approach, and while it may not have been dealt with in any great depth in some of them, in the public submissions in NSW, it was the second-most raised subject, so there’s this huge dichotomy between what our political masters want us to think and what requires discussion.
With regard to the climate crisis, scholars discuss the difficulty of converting “the long emergencies of slow violence into stories dramatic enough to rouse public sentiment and warrant political intervention” (Nixon qtd. in Ahmadi 2). Do you think we need a paradigm shift in the arts and humanities, what Mohebat Ahmadi refers to as a radical rethinking of the “relationship between the human and the nonhuman” and of theatre’s implicit “humanist bias” (Ahmadhi 7)?
In both Embers and Unprecedented I have quite deliberately drawn attention to the nonhuman costs arising from the fires. Emergency services and fire agencies tend to consider a hierarchy of values in their response (saving human life followed by property etc) but climate change is showing us in stark fashion that it does not limit itself to nor respect a humanist bias.
In your work there are moments of “heart-wrenching” (Peard) emotional intensity, but audiences are also asked to engage with complex political and administrative issues. This was especially the case when you depicted the legal struggle of the campaigners in Tasmania. How do you work with that level of detail and maintain dramatic tension?
Rodney [Croome, the lead figure in The Campaign] said to me, “Oh God, how are you going to do the High Court? It’s really important.” And I replied, “Yes, it is—it has to be in there—you can’t tell this story without the High Court.” And while it is legally dense, my way of approaching that is to focus on what you’ve got around it. Once you’ve earned the trust of the audience you go, “Okay, now we’re going to lecture you for ten minutes on this complex legal circumstance, or these more complicated administrative ideas.” Some audiences get it and others go, “Eek!” But you have to get to the meat and potatoes of the issue. And it is the theatre. Theatre is about the heart but it’s also about the mind. It’s the marriage of the two.
Excerpt: The Campaign
RODNEY: There were a lot of submissions, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, between the Tasmanian government, Federal Government, the UN Human Rights Committee and us.42-43
NICK: During which time I lost my job. I was general manager of the AIDS Council at the time. There was a strategy to get rid of me. It was very complicated, but definitely one part was the fact that I was involved in gay rights campaigning and making this communication.
ACTOR 4: And in its decision, the UNHRC noted that the government “threatened to withdraw the AIDS Council’s funding unless Mr. Toonen was given immediate notice.”
MICHAEL: The state of Tasmania objected to the proceeding, including on the basis that gay men were much involved in the AIDS epidemic and that this was not the time to be liberating or permitting the removal of the criminal laws against gay men. However, as is famously known, the Committee unanimously reached a conclusion in support of Nick Toonen’s application.
Lights up on the fax machine. The sound of an incoming fax.
NICK: On Friday April the 18th 1994 the UN faxed through the decision. It took us a few minutes to interpret it. First of all it was like, “Well actually, what does this mean?” Then finally, once we worked it out . . . [reading] . . . “has found a violation under Article 17.” [A beat] “Oh! We won!” We were overjoyed. They had found that my rights, and, by implication, the rights of all gay men in Tasmania, were being violated.
Aesthetic Concerns and Audience Engagement
How would you characterize the effectiveness of verbatim theatre, as opposed to more traditional or even post-dramatic forms, in response to a crisis like the 2003 fires? Was it critical to have authentic voices on the stage?
It’s what I chose. Another option would have been to do all the research and then create a fictional family which experiences this bushfire. I just felt that it was more interesting to capture the regional voice. Back then, those voices were definitely under-represented on Australian stages. They still are, I think.
Text = [The story of the Blue Duck Hotel . . .]44–45
And we were up early the day it hit . . . And while I was up there—only two clicks from the Duck—all the valley was on fire. I kept watching it and it kept getting worse. And I heard a crash behind me and the whole of Mt Ned was on fire. I kept watching it and it kept getting worse. And I looked up and my house was just a ball of flame . . .
And all of a sudden it just went BANG! 172 kilometres an hour they measured it from the satellite. It put me straight on my bum. It blew my nephew over the fence. It put Graeme down on his back on the veranda. It sucked the six skylights out of the cabins. It took them into the air. And it was on. And for what I was laying on the grass, for maybe three to four seconds, it was perfectly clear, as clear as it is today, and you could see everything. Everything was on fire. Every tree. Every bridge. The road. The only thing that wasn’t on fire was the grass. And the pub. Because it was so soaking wet. And I said to my brother “We’re rooted! That’s it! We’re gone!” And by that time the smoke rolled in again and we got up and just fought it.
Do you have a specific process for structuring the enormous amount of interview and research material into narrative?
You find the process to fit the beast. For Embers, it was rather daunting, as there were hundreds and hundreds of pages of typed transcripts. We had travelled around 3,000 km and done 60 hours of interviews. I listened to them, typed them all out, and after also reading the reports of the state and federal inquiries, I said, “Okay, there’re about forty matters that need to be covered in some form or other.” I chose a thematic [rather than geographic or chronological] approach and separated the ideas into four main threads: context, community, conflict and consequence. In the development of it, there were times when “conflict” was in different places, so sections would be swapped around, until we got to the point where we felt, this is the way through. It was slightly different for The Campaign but not altogether dissimilar.
Lots of moving the parts around . . .
The Campaign has a dramatic structure built into it. It really has your classic protagonists and antagonists; it’s got its turning points and a hero’s journey. I remember writing in the program notes that part of the job was to step out of the way and let the story tell itself. Whereas Embers was slightly more chaotic and became a jigsaw puzzle—but I wanted the multiplicity of voices, because it dramatizes community. I think the audience accepts that one actor is playing ten roles, but the authenticity of those voices—of that sort of patterning that you get—was important to me, as well as showing how many people were affected.
How would you describe audience reactions to the real voices in your works?
In Embers, like in The Campaign, people would often read themselves into the work. They’d find the correlation in their own lives. I can’t tell you the number of foyer discussions I had with people telling me about their own fire experience, whether it was a house fire or a bushfire. Interestingly, a lot of women who saw The Campaign told me how they could relate because they had been fighting for women’s rights, so they saw the universal in it, they saw the activists’ struggle.
How should we think about Embers, The Campaign, and Unprecedented with respect to definitions of realist (and new and post-realist) movements in verbatim theatre?
I think my work with verbatim has evolved over time. When I consider the three plays here, I can see a journey from documentary realism through new realism to post-realism. That is not to say that each play fits wholly and easily within one category (although Embers perhaps demonstrates a closer alignment to a documentary realist approach than the others). Certainly, the later works explore strategies more typically described as “new realist” or “post-realist,” such as experimental, reflexive, or intentionally underplayed framing for certain scenes. At the end of the day, though, I simply sit down and say, “I’m writing a play that will utilise verbatim techniques,” and then I set about finding the right way—from this wonderfully varied toolkit of techniques—that I think best serves the story I want to tell.
Scholars such as Cyrielle Garson posit that “arguably all verbatim performances rest upon a contradiction between what they presumably promise to deliver and their need to fit into a conventional dramatic fiction” (121). How do aesthetic conventions and/or diegetic theatricality shape the “truth” of Embers and The Campaign respectively? To what extent are the plays “constructed reality”?
Of course the plays are “constructed reality.” I would argue all plays are to some extent, but I recognise that notions of “authenticity” and “truth” attach themselves to work presented as verbatim in a more fundamental way than with other plays. In Embers, I deployed the device of a community barbecue to frame the action. This had the effect of drawing attention to the artificiality of the representation. In other words, I was attempting to signal, “This is not truth, or reality, or even a report of it, it is a dramatic representation of individual truths from multiple points of view.” In The Campaign, I quite deliberately took it a step further and had the chief homophobic antagonist break into a Gilbert and Sullivan-style patter song late in the play, to clearly signal the constructed nature of the presented reality.
Local Battles, Global Impacts: The Significance of “Place” in Ecocritical Theatre
What was the impact of The Campaign in Tasmania when it premiered in 2018?
I think there was a sense of accomplishment during that first season in Tasmania, which sold out. It’s really powerful to show people an experience they’ve been through—albeit you’ve interpreted it. They don’t realise what they’ve been through until they’ve seen the totality of it, because they’ve had their own path through it. I had young gay guys telling me that they didn’t even know this stuff and that it really affected them.
As your play shows, the state of Tasmania has seen terrible violence and backwardness, but it also led the UN to “adopt an approach to the human rights of homosexual people which stands not only for Australia, but for the world” (The Campaign 4). How important is the notion of “place” in your work?
It feels impossible to have plays like the ones I’ve written without place. But place for me is not necessarily geographical, it’s also about place as community—it’s about that notion of people being bound by a common aim. Something glues them together (even if it’s only temporary), whether that’s a fire or a commonality through sexuality. [With regard to Tasmania], Rodney was very concerned about how I represented the state because it is often misrepresented by the mainland. I was conscious of that but did say to him, “There is a darkness, an underside to it, but I think it’s balanced by showing the good.” Rodney said to me once—and I think there’s something in this—he said, “We’re in an island country and we’re an island off an island.” And he said, “There’s a real mentality around that.” I wonder (while this might not make much sense) whether Tasmania isn’t also the place where we work out our problems in Australia. The Campaign is a quintessential Tasmanian story in a way, a hidden story, but it also stands as a potent reminder and stark warning of broader Australian attitudes.
Do you think The Campaign succeeded in reshaping some conservative resistance to the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community?
What Rodney talks about is storytelling. You have to humanize experience for people. That was one of the strategies he learnt through this campaign, which he then brought to marriage equality. It’s about changing hearts and minds—one on one. So yes, it’s about the grand statement and having to deal with the bureaucracy, but it’s also about turning up and saying, “We want to talk to you about our lives. Do you realise that our lives are secondary?” And most people say, “Oh no, I didn’t. I don’t want that.” In the campaign for law reform, as with marriage equality, the activists went to the local football club, to community halls, rotary clubs; it was about being visible—so they didn’t become this invisible other. And what was also critical, as the backdrop to this, was HIV/AIDS. AIDS added a level of complexity and difficulty to the campaign, but it also fuelled it. There were sound public health arguments for why homosexuality should be decriminalized in the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Excerpt: The Campaign
GEORGE [BROOKES Member for Westmorland] “Do we want people who favour incest to say, ‘We ought to decriminalize incest,’ because that could be a sexual activity between consenting partners?”35–36
Actors take a step away from GEORGE.
We will have the paedophiles coming out of the woodwork and saying “Maybe we ought to look at decriminalizing that also. I believe that if we allow this provision of the bill to go through we will be opening the floodgates. I believe we ought to be looking in the other direction: not decriminalizing—we ought to be tightening up the laws, making them a little more drastic than they are now, a little more draconian, and maybe we will influence a few of them to take the plane north to those places where they ca do what they like, where it has been decriminalized. Do not let them sully our State with their evil activities.”
What connection do you see between the Tasmanian environmental movement and the fight won in The Campaign?
The people campaigning for gay law reform learnt their strategies from the environmental movement. The Franklin Dam protest had happened before this, as had the Lake Pedder protests. In a way, the wonderful Bob Brown was the go-between. He was spearheading the environmental movement, and he was the only openly gay professional in Tasmania at that time. Rodney said they went to him and asked, “How do we do this? How do we campaign for change?” It came down to little details. Things like, if it comes to being arrested at the Salamanca markets, this is how to behave. Getting advice like, “Don’t resist, go floppy, don’t give the police any reason to escalate it.” Consequently, people stood their ground in, arguably, the most significant act of civil disobedience in Australian LGBTQIA+ history.
Fighting for the Future
In your opinion, what does theatre bring to discussions of emergency, devastation, and psychological and social trauma?
What theatre could and should do, and what it does do, are probably very different matters. I think, realistically, theatre is still peripheral in the national conversation. But I think it should have courage, it should be screaming it out at the moment. And I hope it is starting to. I see eco-awareness permeating work far more than it did five years ago; it’s now being woven into the cultural conversation. The thorny, ratbaggy, passionate provocations should come through the theatre and then hopefully spread further. I remember saying to the Artistic Director of HotHouse Theatre about Unprecedented, “We need a different dramaturgy. These times call for a different way of doing things, because what we’ve done for decades, indeed centuries, ain’t cutting the mustard anymore.”
With Unprecedented, I’m toying with the question of how much I can push the boundaries and reaching the point now where I want to just let it rip. I want people to hear a damning indictment of what’s gone on. And some people might say, “It’s not theatre. It’s too polemical.” And I’ll say, “I don’t care. Given that we’re teetering on the edge of an abyss, maybe it’s time for that now.”
But, especially in your plays, there is a sense of hope . . .
Certainly, in The Campaign, there is a great sense of hope. The campaign for reform was a success. In Embers, there is a hopefulness in the way the community responds to the environmental threat before it. In terms of Unprecedented, Australia has a much larger understanding now of the climate crisis, and people realise it’s no longer something happening in just one unlucky corner of the country. The experience of Embers in many ways has become more resonant; it points to something more fundamental than counting properties or assets lost. It wasn’t about their houses burning down. It was everything else. It was their whole landscape, it was their identity that was burning down. It was the rest of nature burning down around them. It was that loss. If there is hope now, it is in the fact that people are more aware that our walls are becoming more porous; they’re aware that they live in and must coexist with the environment.
This is also what connects these plays about landscape to the Tasmanian case. These stories go beyond the literal events depicted, or the moment in which they occurred. As Rodney Croome says:
And from the point of view of outsiders it looks like the issue was about the right to privacy, or the right to equality, or inclusion, you know, whatever it might be. But right from the beginning I think—not just for me but for others as well—it was clearly, primarily about belonging . . . unlike equality [belonging] cannot be seized, unlike inclusion it cannot be bestowed. It only comes through a long, arduous negotiation between those who feel they define an identity and those who know the definition falls short. In the course of that negotiation both parties are transformed for the better.Decent, The Campaign 60
That’s also what I love about The Campaign, it’s the notion of protecting the invisible. It’s got nothing to do with property. It’s about identity, how you construct yourself, and how you place yourself in the world.
 Decent was editor of the Sydney Star Observer in the 1990s and has been Festival Director for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
 These plays explored the British railway crisis and the invasion of Iraq respectively.
 Huang’s celebrated play imagines a future of global warming and the intersecting lives of Earth’s human and non-human inhabitants in 2045.
 Brown, the first openly gay politician in Australia, was arrested for protesting the flooding of Lake Pedder in 1972. As recently as 2021, he was arrested in the successful movement that “stopped logging operations in the Eastern Tiers in the state’s north-east” (Langenberg and Humphries).
“Milestones in the American Gay Rights Movement.” PBS American Experience.
Ahmadi, Mohebat. Towards an Ecocritical Theatre: Playing the Anthropocene, Taylor & Francis Group, 2022.
Angelaki, Vicky. Social and Political Theatre in 21st-century Britain: Staging Crisis. Bloomsbury, 2017.
Bernbaum, Joel. What They Said: Verbatim Theatre’s Relationship to Journalism. 2010. Carleton U, PhD dissertation.
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*Carla Rocavert holds a PhD from the University of Tasmania (2021) and is Maître de Langue at Université Lumière Lyon 2. Her work on reality television, post-truth, art, creativity, talent and theatre has appeared in publications including The Creativity Research Journal, M/C Journal, The International Journal of Critical Cultural Studies, The Encyclopedia of Creativity and The Guardian (Australia).
Copyright © 2022 Carla Rocavert
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