First Seen: New Works-in-Progress. The Street Theatre. May 21 at 3pm; June 1 at 5pm; June 11 at 3pm; August 20 at 3pm. $15. More information and bookings: thestreet.org.au or 62471223.
Have you ever wondered how plays are developed for the theatre? Or wanted to help influence their evolution into finished works? Since 2012, First Seen: New Works-in-Progress has brought Canberra audiences into the creative process at The Street Theatre. Artistic director of The Street Caroline Stacey says four plays by four playwrights were selected, by Melbourne-based Asian-Australian director Beng Oh, from 12 current and former ACT-region writers. Each work will undergo a week-long workshop offering time, space, support and professional expertise with dramaturg Peter Matheson and directors, as well as public presentation and feedback.
While all four works this year deal with familial relationships, Stacey says of the season, "I guess it's characterised by a diversity of voice."
The workshop weeks will help bring each closer to the next stage of development – which could result in production. In recent yers, First Seen has given a kickstart to produced plays including Tom Davis' The Chain Bridge and The Faithful Servant; Julian Hobba's Bartleby; David Atfield's Scandalous Boy; and Helen Machalias' In Loco Parentis.
This year's public season starts on Sunday, May 21, with Canberra writer Cathy Petocz's Hired Mother. This is Petocz's second time in First Seen: she developed her play Where I End And You Begin there in 2012.
"It was great," she says.
That first time, she says, the timing and technique of the play were complicated; this time, it's more the characters she wants to explore: "This one's about relationships."
It's set sometime in the near future. A being in outer space is watching a mother-daughter relationship break up in Canberra. She comes down to Earth intending to bring them back together by forming separate relationships with both women – she hires the mother to be "her" mother and forms a close bond with the daughter. But as her feelings intensify she realises what she will lose if she is successful in her original quest.
"She decides to sabotage what she came repair; her desires have shifted."
Petocz was interested in exploring the mother-daughter relationship and how it is viewed and judged by society. She cites Medea – often viewed as a monster but with more complexities than is sometimes acknowledged – and Adrienne Rich's description of mother being, for many women, "penal servitude".
Petocz says the development process, and having the play read and seen in public, will be useful.
Next up, on Thursday, June 1, will be the song cycle Homesong, libretto by Nigel Featherstone, music by James Humberstone. It's Featherstone's first time in First Seen, and the award-winning fiction writer's first experience writing a libretto.
In 2015 he was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretto for an original 12-song cycle.
"One of the concepts I gave them was an Australian soldier returning from a tour in Afghanistan with a secret," the former Canberra resident says.
"Something happened on his tour of duty. He arrives home on leave, returning to the family farm where he discovers his family has a horrifying secret, too."
One of the books Featherstone drew on in researching Homesong was Peter Stanley's Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force.
"It opened my eyes – armies are reflections of the societies that build them, and as imperfect as the societies they serve," he says.
"We expect our servicemen and women to be perfect and they're not," he says, noting they are often forced to deal with pressures in and resulting from conflict that people at home don't have to face.
Featherstone says in writing the libretto he applied the same principles he would use on a short story or novella – establishing characters and background and driving the plot – and says working with Humberstone, who's from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, has been smooth.
"James is respectful of the text," he says. It does, however, have to be a two-way relationship: sometimes the words must be altered to fit the music.
The cycle will be performed by a pianist and baritone, who will sing the three roles of the soldier, his mother and his father. It's already undergone substantial changes – some songs have been altered, some have been binned and the order has been changed – but more may come out of the First Seen experience.
On Sunday, June 11, comes White Tulips by Heidi Silberman. The play was selected for The Hive script development program in 2015. It's about two sisters raised in Canberra, Connie and Alicia, who have seen little of each other since they were teenagers. Alicia, 36, left a long time ago and lives in Perth, while Connie, 40, stayed in Canberra. But now their father has died and their mother is suffering from worsening dementia. Alicia returns to the family home for a week, setting the scene for memories to be revisited and old wounds to be reopened. Connie is a conflict avoider but Alicia likes to get things out in the open, among other differences, so it won't be easy, even apart from the fraught circumstances of their meeting and their own difficult history.
"It's about truth, memory and forgiveness," Silberman says.
"The first scene I wrote was the first scene of the play, it came from something that happened to me. My father died 19 years ago and that night when I found out I went and told my sister. We had to go back to our parents' and wait for our other sister to come home, so there were hours of sitting in the lounge and talking. That's where that stemmed from."
But, she hastens to add, her relationship with her sisters is much better than that of Connie and Alicia.
"They're very different characters – I don't want them to think it's them!"
She will see what suggestions the audience has to offer in First Seen. The play has already been altered over the course of its development: originally both the mother and the father were on stage but they've been cut, partly for practical reasons.
"The fewer actors you have the better: it's easier to get funding when you need less money."
Finally, on Sunday, August 20, is Dylan Van Den Berg's Sybilla. It is, he says, a play about fame and its effects – not just on the person who is famous but on those close to them. It's also a play about relationships.
Sally and David are partners but their relationship is rocky.
"David is bisexual and she's struggling to come to terms with that aspect of him," Van Den Berg says.
And there' an imminent reunion with David's mother, Sybilla, a once-famous stand-up comedian, coupled with a surprise visit from his sister Annie, a current stand-up comic who has vowed never to speak to her mother again.
As the alcohol and the increasingly harsh words flow, family tensions – both old and recent – surface and questions about love, forgiveness and the past arise.
"The extent to which we tolerate people we love despite their terrible behaviour is something I'm interested in."
Actor and writer Van Den Berg graduated from the ANU with a bachelor of arts (drama) and is now studying law in Sydney. He says he based the character of Sybilla "very loosely" on his grandmother: both women being larger than life and having an impact on the lives and relationships of people around them.