It's November, 1916. Three women are in the sitting room of an Australian country town.
And that's just about where the certainties end. No two performances of The Home Front will be alike. This piece of improvised theatre explores the lives of women in Australia during World War I with the only other constants being the actresses - Catherine Crowley, Ruth Pieloor and Lynn Petersen - and their character names. The characters themselves, however, will change at every performance.
The piece was developed through improvisation workshops and through the Street Theatre's Made in Canberra and First Seen initiatives. Director and co-producer Heidi Silberman says: "As we researched the war we believed this time period was a time when terrible things had happened, and there was less of the 'it'll be all over by Christmas' attitude there had been by that point."
By then, everyone knew the situation was terrible and nobody knew when it would end. Wounded men had started to come back home and the first plebiscite concerning conscription had been held and narrowly defeated.
"It was so divisive." The World War I setting is a rich source of drama. Silberman will be on stage to guide each performance as it happens. "The audience helps me,'' she says.
With questions to and answers from the audience and prompting with questions and props and plot twists by Slberman, each actress will have her character developed anew at every performance. Rich, poor, widowed, deserted, married, daughters, sisters, pro- or anti-conscription, letter-writers, fund-raisers - these and many other possibilities are in the mix. And the three actresses will interact on stage, in character. If they do or say something that isn't appropriate, Silberman will pull them up and they will do it again.
"It's a big risk,'' Silberman says. "They really need to make the characters their own. They'll do that, they'll feed each other things, or I will say to one or another, 'Remember the time when ...' It's a team effort."
And the collaboration extends further, with PJ Williams on lighting, Imogen Keen on sets and costumes and Dianna Nixon as language dramaturg to ensure the characters speak as they would have a century ago. And Peter Matheson was dramaturg during its period at the Street Theatre's Hive program for developing new works.
Through its long process of development it has received a lot of feedback, Silberman says including one oft-repeated backhanded compliment.
"So many people didn't believe it was improvised."
But it is, with the setting, costumes, props and audience input as well as the research and imaginations of the director and the cast bringing it to new life on stage, every time.
Silberman - a writer, director and performer - has worked in various forms of theatre including Short + Sweet She has created and directed improvised shows for Impro ACT including Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Homeward and Impro ACT’s first show for children, Once Upon A …
She says she hopes the show will go on a regional tour next year as part of the ongoing commemoration of the centenary of World War I. It's a reminder that the conflict did not only affect those who went off to fight, but those left behind, who had to go on with their lives - working, raising families, taking care of themselves and each other - while awaiting news of the war and of their relatives and friends who were so far away.
Crowley, 32, has also had a long association with improvisational theatre with Impro ACT. Her directorial pieces have included the self-devised improvised shows Tryptich and The Office.
In The Home Front, she has played a variety of characters, from an 18-year-old girl whose brother is off at the war and whose widowed mother has become a recluse, to a mother of young children whose sister comes to live with her.
She found the research into the period fascinating and sometimes surprising. If a mother passed away, the eldest daughter could become the family matriarch and look after her younger siblings.
"It was not unusual for family members to turn up on the doorstep and stay."
Women could be stoic and restrained, but the suffragette movement had only recently been successful in getting women the right to vote and women also played a large part in the conscription debate, on both sides of the contentious issue.
Crowley has a personal connection to World War I: her great-great-uncle. Private William Cockburn, went off to fight with some Newcastle boys in 1916 when he was 18 years old and was killed in France the following year.
"My family and I travelled to France four years ago and saw his name on the Menin Gates in Ypres. It was nice to see his name there, since the grave doesn't exist."
The Home Front. Directed by Heidi Silberman. Produced by Silberman and Catherine Crowley in association with The Street Theatre. The Street Theatre, June 18-21, 24-28. Tickets $25/$25. Bookings: thestreet.org.au or 62471223.
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