Outback Upfront: Playwriting Around Youth in Regional Australia

David Megarrity* and Jenna Gillett-Swan**

Abstract

Over a quarter of Australia’s population lives in rural, regional and remote areas. Often shaped by forms of research with young people, scripted drama about regional youth in Australia tends to emanate from its major cities. In framing themselves as “lending voice” to this demographic, these scripts about the “Outback” are often upfront about their dramaturgical basis in co-creation and consultation. This article surveys how paratexts of thirty plays represent regional young people. Analysis suggests congruences across themes and provenance, including an absence of the unadulterated voices of young people and concomitant concerns around authenticity.

Keywords: Τheatre for young people, regional Australia, playwriting, child voice in research, regional youth

Over a quarter of Australia’s population live in regional rural and remote areas (AIHW) and many of these people are young. David Berthold asserts that “our stages ignore them, mostly” (qtd. in Enright vii). Darwin-based Mary Ann Butler suggests that even being a regional playwright sometimes “feels synonymous with invisible.” Despite this, dozens of plays representing the experience of regional youth in Australia have been written and performed over the last few decades (2001–23).

To understand the dramaturgical landscape of playwriting representing regional youth experiences, a review of play texts from publishers and online repositories at Playlab Theatre, Australian Plays Transform and Currency Press was conducted, augmented by AuSstage and Austlit, databases capturing performed and published works respectively. A focus on scripted drama will, of course, exclude rich traditions of unpublished, non-text-based and collaboratively devised performances as well as original drama practice happening within educational institutions that are rarely included in these repositories.

Though they emanate from many different parts of Australia and were made in many different ways, at different times over the last thirty years, the scripts surveyed here suggest some likenesses across the field not only of representative settings, themes and characters related to playwriting regional youth, but also a range of apparently consultative strategies designed to authenticate the stories they stage.

The sections that follow outline some commonalities in themes and content in addition to claims of authenticity implied by the involvement of young people at some stage in their creation. This survey’s focus is the writing that frames each script such as “blurb,” bios, keywords and synoptic material. This paratext is key to framing each text’s intended origin and purpose (Skare) and provides additional insight into what these scripts purport to offer the reader. These materials literally and figuratively “locate” the plays in the field, strongly suggesting how a reader may find each one in terms of online search terms, geography (real or fictionalised) and the more subjective domains of reception and interpretation.

This sample is a broad slice of text-based theatre for young people created in Australia between 2001 and 2023 which identifies as being for and about young people living in rural, regional or remote areas. While each of these geographical categories has its own properties, they are labelled for ease of reference in this paper as “regional.” The broad age group of Young People is located as being between the ages of 12 to 25. The paratext of these scripts in search terms or landing pages often includes keywords such as “young people,” “growing up” and “coming of age,” alongside phrases such as “country versus city,” “small town life” and “geographic isolation,” among more specific issue-based content descriptors.

Raising Voice

Regionality inflects these dramatic explorations of youth social issues with themes of environmental exigencies, liminality expressed through transit and conflicting desires to stay or leave, First Nations perspectives and the risks, dangers and life events that accelerate or complicate socialisation and identity formation. Themes of climate change are observably more frequent from 2010 onwards.

Living in the country suggests close proximity to the effects of climate change. Burnt (Nantsou and Lycos, 2011) “was born out of the true stories of people from regional Australia struggling with . . .continued drought impacts on families and young people.” Very Happy Children with Bright and Wonderful Futures (Maxwell, 2021) follows the bushfire season “through the eyes of five teenagers living regionally,” exposing the effect of the global upon the local.

Firefighting at Hillview North of Adelaide River. Originally posted to Flickr. Photo: Web/Wikimedia/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Australia’s “local” can be very, very large. The nation is wider than the Moon, so many of these plays can be found on the long roads to and from the outback. From the suburban fringes outwards, transport infrastructure performs as dramatic setting. Truck Stop (Philpott, 2012) and Eating Ice Cream with Your Eyes Closed (Brown, 2004) see young people on the edge of things, on or near the road, or after a good time and almost always in trouble. North West of Nowhere by Kamarra Bell-Wykes has its young protagonists Wyatt and Nella: “piling in to Cuz’s ute headed one way for Sydney. Nella’s got her heart set on the big smoke and a whole new life, Cuz has other ideas and Wyatt can’t help thinking they should all just turn back now” (Bell-Wykes, 2016).

Themes of family, culture and identity emerge in the strongly autobiographical works of (often female) First Nations authors when the word “Country” captures not only geographical zone but also a deeper sense of “the lands, waterways and seas to which they are connected. The term contains complex ideas about law, place, custom, language, spiritual belief, cultural practice, material sustenance, family and identity” (AIATSIS).

Personal, cultural and economic experiences of First Nations peoples flow strongly through texts such as Crow Fire (Milroy in Harding 2002), The Fever and The Fret (Clerc, 2015), and The Daly River Girl (Rose and Clerc, 2020). A Closer Sky (Helfgott, 2004), set in the Peel indigenous community of Mandurah in Western Australia is about “a young Indigenous girl grappling with identity, employment and housing problems.” With at least 61 percent of Australia’s First Nations people living in regional and remote locations (AIHW), the experience of First Nations writers speaks with increasing strength in staging stories of regional young people.

Vanessa Bates’s Trailer (2018) is set “between the beach and the bush . . . on a train line with a city at either end. Waiting,” suggesting a kind of suspension between places, as an analogue for the liminal states between childhood and adulthood that regularly characterises adolescence. Presence or absence related to the protagonist’s family of origin (and found family and friends) also drives dramatic tensions.

Absences of information and secrets often recur as well as mixed feelings about death and bereavement. The verbatim April’s Fool (Burton and Tickell, 2010) begins with the real-life death of a young man, who is not represented onstage. Julia-Rose Lewis notes in the foreword to her play Samson (2016) that for her rural adolescent protagonists, “growing up at the arse end of the arse end of the world . . . the death of someone important can be the start of something excellent.”

Risks and dangers tend to come with the territory in dramas focussed on regional adolescence, as if death and violence are synonymous with being young in these places. Kate Mulvaney’s 2017 adaptation of Craig Silvey’s novel Jasper Jones begins with the sadly mainstream trope of a young woman’s death as an inciting incident. A dark seam of the Australian Gothic haunts a number of these works, including Children of the Black Skirt (Betzien, 2005).

Richard Jordan identifies a period in mainstream Australian theatre writing, from Michael Gow’s 1988 Away onwards, in which a “young character’s death would become an essential element of the genre . . . a space where to be young is to be tragic, transient, and dangerous” (44), and though that quality resonates across quite a few of these scripts, it is hardly ever voiced by young people themselves.

Lending Voice

Excluding the few verbatim works in this survey, it is very rare for the voices of regional youth to emerge unadulterated in these scripts, and if it does, it is probably from the pen of someone who is probably no longer from the age group or location they are writing about. This may well be because public funding for arts projects tends to be concentrated on urban areas, but the foreword of This Was Urgent Yesterday (2020) strongly asserts that: “regional voices are still often missing in our national cultural conversations [. .  and are] still often told from voices outside our communities, and often rely on outdated stereotypes that do not reflect and represent what it is like to be a young person living in regional Australia here and now.”

This publication, the only one here exclusively featuring the playwriting of regional young people, collects monologues created by young writers in South Australia, the result of Writing Place, a project “directly modelled on the Australian Theatre for Young People’s (ATYP) annual National Studio,” teaming young writers with adult mentors. The Sydney-based ATYP is frequently involved in the commissioning and publication of the scripts in this survey. The ATYP Foundation Commission, noting a paucity of scripts for young people aged 10 to 17, aimed to generate “a body of new work to engage and excite young artists and audiences across the country for years to come” (ATYP). Other works in this sample emerge from similar developmental initiatives or award schemes, so in addition to commonalities in content, theme and representation, there are some observable similarities in their provenance, in particular, claims of engagement or consultation with young people as part of their creation.

While creative linkages between adult artists and regional young people focussed on amplifying their experience through scripted drama are often referenced across these plays, many aspects of exactly how this “voicing” process works often remain behind the scenes.

Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP). Promo trailer

Though these texts embody a multiplicity of perspectives, regional settings seem to suggest mutable lifeworlds where threat and transition are at play, but there are other themes that appear to draw these works together. It’s understandable that plays naturally focus on dramatic events in the lives of young people, and there may be legal or ethical reasons why participants would choose or be obliged to remain anonymous contributors unacknowledged in paratexts. Is this why discourses of authenticity are recurrent themes in playwriting around rural youth? Are the writers of text and paratext addressing a perceived need for veracity that often extends into consultative processes of writing, development and production to reassure the reader receives the material as authentic, or, as Michael D. Friedman defines it, “really proceeding from its reputed source” (34)?

Accounts of consultation with young people preface over half of the scripts in this survey. Suzie Miller’s Driving Into Walls (2015) was the result of a “3-year period of workshops and interviews in “every state and territory in Australia.” Jo Turner’s In a Heart Beat (2015) was “a humorous and heartfelt depiction of adolescence based on the stories shared by Armidale teenagers in workshops during the creative process.” Some works mention the duration of engagement processes in their paratext, and others do not.

At times, the plays emerge as a way of articulating or addressing perceived social issues. Howard Cassidy and Vivienne Watts narrate the use of Queensland playwright Robert Kronk’s 2009 play Snagged as a way of “Using Theatre to Stem the Loss of Social Capital from Rural Communities.” Notably, this involved a five-month process of consultation, involving a partnership between a school in a rural community, a university, a playwright, Robert Kronk, who grew up in a regional area, and a Federal Government-funded program designed as “affirmative action initiative for isolated, rural state and private schools.” Kronk notes how important it was that:

the key people involved with the project know what it’s like to live in the bush. The question of authenticity was vital. The play could not preach; it could not be distant. We were trying to create something that spoke to young people in regional areas—in their language, honestly.

qtd. in Cassidy and Watts 43

Perceptions of what constitutes authentic dramaturgical engagement with a community across these projects may infer a continuum from brief consolation to immersion. The need to indicate (but often not detail) these processes may be a tacit acknowledgment of broader suspicions regional communities may hold of “fly-in fly-out arts programmes” (Gattenhof et al. 46), a reference to workers who extract incomes from but do not reside in regional areas. However, most of the plays surveyed here did not spontaneously emerge from a particular place in regional Australia but, rather, were the result of a carefully constructed set of partnerships between people and organisations, most probably with some level of government subsidy involved. What awareness young people may or may not have of the rationales and foundations of the projects is not recorded.

Having surveyed these scripted dramas written about young people in regional Australia, it is possible to make the following observations.

Across this survey, the paratexts of these pieces often position them as lending voice to regional youth in some way, representative of stories that may otherwise not be told, allowing “audiences around the country to gain a personal understanding of what life is like growing up in regional Australia” (Rose, Desert, 6:29pm, 2020). These are plays with a plan, and while they don’t (or can’t) tell us everything in their paratext, they still want to tell us how they were made. Keen that seams must seemingly be seen, this desire for playwrights and publishers to explain themselves regularly extends to broad accounts of community involvement in the creative process. Many of these scripts underline their provenance, outlining participatory processes with regional youth, implying a link between consultation and quality.

Geoffrey Milne observes that the Theatre for Young Audiences productions that are most:

effective have tended to be . . . those commissioned for specific groups of young people . . . when the young people know what it is they want to say and have some idea about how they want to say it, and the writer’s or dramaturg’s function is clearly seen as facilitator, then effective agency is promoted and good theatre emerges.

137
Voice Inclusive?

This convention of incorporating consultative strategies of developmental dramaturgy can lend ethnodramatic qualities to a playwriting process which “explores or workshops fieldwork documentation through dramatic and theatrical modalities” (Saldaña 47). Community-engaged projects drawing on verbatim methods (Peters and Burton) may expand on their process in some detail. In some instances, key themes for a potential work may be predetermined by extrinsic factors related to project funding aims and quasi-instrumental views of the function of theatre as a kind of aesthetic problem-solving for communities.

While the scripts involving consultative strategies probably intend the works to enable regional young people to be able to “read” and reconstruct the world on their own terms” (Snyder-Young 176), apart from the few verbatim projects, the voices of young people in these plays and their paratext that frames them tend to be attenuated or non-existent. No artist wishes to frame their efforts to engage with regional young people in terms of, as Laura Lundy puts it “one-off ‘smash and grabs’” (350), where decision-makers come in, collate their views and disappear back to their offices; yet, ethical boundaries and the affordances of regional arts practice in Australia, such as distance, time and money, have the potential to limit the role of young people in this research to “a passive role as subject, recipient or object of data rather than as active contributor” (Gillett-Swan 290).

Only one of the pieces about regional youth in this survey was actually written by regional youth. This may be understandable in terms of the way various protections around working with minors may shape consultation, engagement, performances, documentation and publication. It may be the reason why their paratexts place their accounts of consultation upfront. In these remarks, sole authors acknowledge the important involvement of young people in participatory research in the foreword, while their sole authorship is reiterated on the spine. Alongside the verbatim-focussed but not youth-exclusive work of Peters and Burton (2024), the writing of Cassidy and Watts (working with playwright Robert Kronk) stands as an unusually detailed particular playwriting process, and like Snagged (2009), many of the scripts surveyed here are the product of partnerships between various subsidised organisations, each of which has stakeholders and a rationale: a tacit requirement, perhaps, for acquittal to match inception.

The dramaturgical action of participatory research with the subjects and audience of these plays seems likely and rightly to remain a fixture in this domain of representing regional youth onstage. Co-creation is connected with quality. If a play is to speak to young people once it’s finished, it’s preferable that it speaks with young people while it’s being made. This impulse finds many forms. Based on the surveyed scripts, they may extend from sole-authored autoethnography, through consultation and co-creation with ethnodramatic intent to in-depth community residencies, but the voices of young people rarely emerge unmediated by adults in text or paratext. These plays may be consultative but are hardly ever voice-inclusive.

The good intentions of all these plays are not under question. These plays are often made about, sometimes with, yet seldom by their subjects. What do young people think about being researched as part of a playwright’s process? We would have to ask them.

These precedents in playwriting practice, influenced by broader socio-cultural structures such as arts funding are bound to shape the dramaturgy of any new project to some extent. The development of Australian performance about regional youth experiences can only be enriched by voicing foundational perspectives from youth themselves.

Plays Surveyed

Bates, Vanessa. Trailer. Currency Press, 2018.

Bellamy, Jessica. Compass. Playlab Press. 2013.

Bell-Wykes, Kamarra North West of Nowhere. Australian Plays Transform, 2016.

Betzien, Angela. Children of the Black Skirt. Currency Press. 2005.

—. War Crimes. Currency Press, 2015.

Brown, David. Eating Ice Cream with Your Eyes Closed. Playlab Press, 2004.

Burton, David, and Tickell, Christie. April’s Fool. Playlab Press, 2010.

Butler, Mary Anne. Cusp. Currency Press, 2020.

Clerc, Jub. The Fever and the Fret. Playab Press, 2015.

Collins, Ang. Blueberry Play. Australian Plays Transform, 2021.

Collier, Alexandra. Underland. Playlab Press, 2017.

Coopes, Rachael and Blair, Wayne. Sugarland. Playlab Press.

Ellis, Ben. Falling Petals. 1st ed., Currency Press, 2014.

Enright, Nick. Spurboard. Currency Press, 2001.

Giovannoni, Dan. Slap. Bang. Kiss. 1st ed., Currency Press, 2022.

Harding, John, et al. Blak Inside: 6 Indigenous Plays from Victoria. Currency Press in association with Playbox Theatre, 2002.

Helfgott, Louise. A Closer Sky. Australian Plays Transform, 2004.

Intersection: Unleashed. Australian Theatre for Young People Currency Press, 2021.

Kirpatrick, Fleur. Terrestrial. Australian Plays Transform, 2018.

Kronk, Robert. Snagged: a play about growing up, leaving home and sausages. Playlab Press, 2009.

—. Ithaca Road. Playlab Press, 2011.

—. Fly In Fly Out. Playlab Press, 2013.

Lewis, Julia-Rose. Samson. Playlab, 2016.

Maxwell, Joshua. Very Happy Children with Bright and Wonderful Futures. 2021.

Miller, Suzie. Driving into Walls. Playlab, 2015.

Mulvany, Kate. Jasper Jones. Currency Press, 2017.

—. The Web. Currency, 2011.

Morton, David. The Riddle of Washpool Gully. Playlab, 2020

Nantsou, Stefo, and Tom Lycos. The Zeal Theatre Collection. Currency Press, 2011.

Peters, Sarah. twelve2twentyfive. Australian Plays Transform, 2015.

Peters, Sarah Eternity. Australian Plays Transform, 2017.

Philpott, Lachlan. Truck Stop. Currency Press, 2012.

Rose, Morgan. Desert, 6:29pm. Rev. ed., Currency Press, 2020.

Rose, Tessa, and Jub Clerc. The Daly River Girl. Playlab, 2020.

This Was Urgent Yesterday. Currency Press, 2020.

Turner, Jo. In a Heart Beat. Playlab, 2014.


Bibliography

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. “Welcome to Country.”Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 2022. Accessed 7 Dec. 2023.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.Rural and Remote Health.” Accessed 7 Dec. 2023.

Bell-Wykes, Kamara, Rachel Forgasz, and Danielle Hradsky. Teaching First Nations Content and Concepts. Australian Plays Transform, 2020.

Butler, Mary Anne. “The Happiest Accident.” AUDREY Journal, 22 Apr.2018. Accessed 7 Dec. 2023.

Cassidy, Howard, and Vivienne Watts. “Spirit of Place: Using Theatre to Stem the Loss of Social Capital from Rural Communities.” Youth Theatre Journal, vol. 19, no. 1, 2005, pp. 34–54. Accessed 7 Dec. 2023.

—. “To Leave or Not to Leave: Rural Youth Gain a Voice through Theatre.” NJ : Drama Australia Journal, vol. 28, no. 1, 2004, pp. 35–45.

Friedman, Michael D. “In Defense of Authenticity.” Studies in Philology, vol. 99, 2002, pp. 33–56.

Gattenhof, Sandra, Donna Hancox, Helen Klaebe, and Sasha Mackay. Nothing About Us Without Us: Co-creation with Communities for Impact Assessment. In: The Social Impact of Creative Arts in Australian Communities. Springer, 2021.

Gillett-Swan, Jenna K. “Children’s Analysis Processes When Analysing Qualitative Research Data: A Missing Piece to the Qualitative Research Puzzle.” Qualitative Research: QR, vol. 18, no. 3, 2018, pp. 290–306. Accessed 7 Dec. 2023.

Jordan, Richard. The Space Between: Representing “Youth” on the Contemporary Australian Stage, 2006. Queensland U of Technology, Masters by Research by Creative Works dissertation.

Lundy, Laura. “In Defence of Tokenism? Implementing Children’s Right to Participate in Collective Decision-Making.” Childhood, vol. 25, no.3, 2018, pp. 340–54. Accessed 7 Dec. 2023.

Milne, Geoffrey. “Promoting Agency or ‘Stepping Stones R Us’?: Recent Melbourne Youth Theatre.” Young People and Performance in Australia and New Zealand, special issue of Australasian Drama Studies, edited by Mary Anne Hunter and Geoffrey Milne, no. 47, 2005, pp. 121–39.

Perez, Phillipe. “Playwright (sic) Rachel Coopes on Working in Katherine and Writing Atyp’s Sugarland.” The AU Review, 2016. Accessed 7 Dec. 2023.

Peters, Sarah and David Burton. Verbatim Theatre Methodologies for Community Engaged Practice: Perspectives from Australian Theatre. Routledge, 2024.

Saldaña, Johnny. Ethnotheatre: Research from Page to Stage. Routledge, 2016.

Skare, Roswitha. “Paratext.” Knowledge Organization, vol. 47, no. 6, 2020, pp. 511–19.

Snyder-Young, Dani. “Youth Theatre as Cultural Artifact: Social Antagonism in Urban High School Environments.” Youth Theatre Journal, vol. 26, no. 2, 2012, pp. 173–83. Accessed 7 Dec. 2023.

Vaughn, Lisa M., and Jacquez Farrah. “Participatory Research Methods—Choice Points in the Research Process.” Journal of Participatory Research Methods, vol. 1, no. 1, 2020. Accessed 7 Dec. 2023. 


Photo: Courtesy of the author

*David Megarrity is an award-winning writer, composer and performer specialising in research led by creative practice. Senior Lecturer in Drama at Queensland University of Technology, his research interests include composed theatre, songwriting and community, and performances for with and about children and young people. 

Photo: Courtesy of the author

**Jenna Gillett-Swan (QUT Associate Professor) is a rights and wellbeing researcher whose work is focussed on participatory research methods and participant voice. Her current research interests include: co-design with children and young people, children’s rights in, to, and through education, child voice and participation, children as researchers and analysts of research data, and children’s wellbeing and lived experiences.

Copyright © 2023 David Megarrity and Jenna Gillett-Swan
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

Creative Commons Attribution International License

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email