Playwrite Rachel Coopes on working in Katherine and writing ATYP’s Sugarland.

Sugarland is currently heading around many regional venues of Australia after doing a short run in Melbourne and other Australian cities to some already-stellar reviews. The story follows the lives of five teenagers, documenting the unlikely friendships, but also of the difficult situations, that come with living as a teenager in the Northern Territory.

We spoke to playwright Rachel Coopes in detail about the journey she went on in writing this play for young people, particularly with content issues that can be confronting, challenging perception about what exactly is ‘youth theatre’.

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 You traveled to Katherine as part of the process of writing this play. Can you tell me about your observations up there and how they helped form the play?

I went backwards and forwards over a couple of years and spent anywhere between ten days to two weeks on the ground teaching workshops in schools. The workshops were about storytelling and I would sometimes hang around with kids outside of school and develop relationships over a longer period of time. Not only hanging out with the kids of Katherine, but also people from Mission Australia and the police who work with those people.

These also included the youth liaison officers and people at the YMCA who are very connected to the young people there. They really are quite engaged with the kids there.

Each trip was slightly different too, for example: I went to different schools or it was a different time of year so you’re hanging around different places with the kids.

One draft of the play had it set in a boxing gym. So, I hung out with kids at this amazing, theatrical boxing ring that used to be there and no longer is there sadly.

It was a long, slow organic process of getting to know people in the town. But the characters and the story emerged in the first trip. The reason for that was that the communities there wear a lot on their sleeve. There is not a lot that is hidden. You don’t really need to dig beneath the surface very deeply to try and find what is going on. It’s all there, everything’s happening in the streets, in the community. Everyone’s very open and aware of the beauty, the wonder and the dysfunction as well.

I’ve gone other regional places to where there is a lot of things on the outside that is perfect. Once you scratch beneath the surface there’s a lot more going than what we really see as passive observers. Sometimes the beauty of going regionally for a long period is that you see the beauty, the real beauty and the real rawness of what a town represents. A lot of these towns are so used to people going in and out. Coming in to do one residence and then buggering off.

Is everything being so out in the open as you say an easier thing or a harder thing for you as a playwright? What effect does it have on your writing process?

As a writer or a performer you rely on instinct a lot. I was supposed to go up and write a football play. Initially Wayne Blair wanted me to do this, and I thought Oh okay, another football play. Cool. My instincts were more about thinking about what was happening with young women up here was interesting. It’s a story that we don’t normally see out in the open so quickly.

It was surprising to me that the themes, the issues and the richness of what I could explore appeared to me so quickly. My instinct was: this is the story.

What were those issues that you saw, specifically?

Teenage homelessness, teenage pregnancy and how epidemic it is in the Northern Territory – particularly in Katherine and around Darwin – was hugely interesting not only as two separate ideas but possibly about whether there was a connection between those two things. It became apparent to me quickly that yes, if you are a young female and you’re in a situation that is untenable, there is a three-year waiting list for emergency housing and it doesn’t matter if you are immediately in danger – there are short temporary solutions – but in the longer term you have to go back home.

If you are pregnant, you get to the top of the list because you have a baby. For me that emerged on the very first trip there as an issue I had to explore.

It was phenomenal as a Sydney born-and-bred based young female who has had a very different life to these young women of the NT. It made me wonder how I would’ve coped if those were the big decisions I’m being faced with at a young age. So yes from that point it made things easier.

It was there from the very beginning – it was all there, and I just needed to build those relationships to build the depth and find the detail in the story. That kind of thing doesn’t always happen. In fact the reverse happens most of the time.

Considering that you grew up in such an urban environment, how did you approach building those relationships with young people from the outback?

Territorians are notoriously open. There’s a freedom in going “yeah, this is us in our own dysfunctional wonderful glory. We are all doing the best we can” There is something quite insidious about the way most of us are down south, in the sense that everything gets so politicised and that everything has a spin on it. It’s not like that out there.

Using the example of the main character of Nina – who is sixteen, an Aboriginal girl trying to get pregnant to be able to live in a house – I met so many people like her. As a middle class urban female, I was angry and frustrated at the system, but after a while it was all about them asking me “Hey Miss! Where’s your baby? You’re hanging out with us young mob up here. What are you doing wasting your time here?”

You ask what your value system is. Is the way that we live down here any better, or do we have things right? I don’t think it’s necessarily about dysfunction. There is a wonderful spirit and humour in young people in the territory. I haven’t been in enough remote communities across Australia to know whether it’s just being remote in general, but it’s refreshingly good-spirited and good-humoured about saying “this is the way life is. We embrace it. We get on with it.”

There is not the sense of tragedy that we would imbue in the same circumstances if it went on in Sydney.

Tell me more about Wayne Blair and his role in Sugarland?

He was hugely essential. The first trip from Darwin to Katherine was with him. We did the drive together. Having him in the process was vital with gaining trust across the board in the beginning across the schools and out of the schools with the kids. Having a male there firstly and an Aboriginal male to be my cultural key. We held each other’s hand through that initial process which was overwhelming for Wayne as well.

When you do see young people having to work the system up there in order to survive, it’s frustrating and so there was a sense of grief and sadness that we shared. It was a huge part of the process. He was also incredibly important to have the sense of if we were going to tell this story about young people in this part of the world, we do it with complete integrity and not to feel like we have to mollycoddle or be afraid of looking at the issues that potentially, in educational theatre, could be problematic.

Wayne and I have that same sense that theatre is such an incredible way to unpack tricky conversations.

Especially with young people, being able to give off this integrity is important.

Yes especially with young people! I’ve worked with young people now for almost 20 years and I know the power of storytelling. The project, being in NT, the results that we had in terms of engagement with young people just from that storytelling aspect of the residency were incredible.

Some of the kids that we worked with that were not engaged in school at all were engaged in the process. We did a little bit of hip-hop stuff, we did a little bit of acting, we did a little bit of physical stuff. Going back over that two year period, once they got to know and trust me was rich for them.

For me – and I think this is where Wayne was a really powerful advocate – I had to fight in later drafts for keeping some of the more challenging content in. If we can’t take young people in the theatre and show them a reflection of themselves and then have a difficult conversation after that, I don’t know where the place for that conversation is.

Often when we make it about the story and about characters interacting and not personal, it also gives us a way to go “hey, this is a difficult topic that no parent wants to talk about to their child.” No child is going to speak in to their parent the same way they would to a friend about these harsh issue. Let’s de-personalise this but really look at what’s going on here.

They can learn from each other, and Sugarland is not preaching, not talking down to them. It’s not coming from some program that’s been paid for by the government. Kids aren’t idiots. They know when they are given a program like that. To me, the theatre is the best place for it and if not, then where?

How important is it for non-indigenous youth who live in metro areas to see Sugarland? To be able see these issues that are happening in the NT?

I think it’s important and exciting. It’s nice to just have representation for the NT youth the Australian stage. For the people who work with those young people to go “Yes! Finally! Someone is talking about things!”

From the perspective of kids down south and in other areas of Australia – it’s vital. This is the country that we live in. The thing that I’ve found the hardest in this process in terms of story was firstly assigning the universality of it – what are the things specific to Katherine? And what are the things that are specific to just being young? And secondly, finding the joy. Finding the hope.

In the first draft of Sugarland, I’d get these notes back from our artistic director that said things were very bleak. I kept on telling him though it was funny. I promised him it would be funny when you get those young people saying the lines and young people in the audience seeing it.

There is a sense of humour and spirit that connects young people across Australia and across the globe. The way that they speak to each other and forming that emotional world is important. It’s the most important time where you form opinions, your ideals and this kind of ‘ego’ part of yourself. The stakes are high. I remember being a teenager and I had a different life to the kids and choices in Katherine, but the stakes are the same for me.

It’s a play about friendship and how important friendship is, and how important it is to potentially save your life. I mean that literally – for many kids, friendships are a matter of life and death. It’s everything. In this day and age, we see things like cyber-bullying and the rates of suicide of our young people. There’s an epidemic of loneliness because of the way friendships are made and kept, and then lost. The way young people relate to each other. That really makes me sad.

This play touches on that a little a bit – a bit of riding on your bike and heading to someone’s house – which is what you don’t do in the city.

lineSugarland – commissioned and developed by the Australian Theatre for Young People – is currently touring around regional Australia and is currently playing at the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre until May 25. It has short runs in Perth, Bathurst, Orange, Griffith, Wagga Wagga , Sydney, Taree and South Morang. Sugarland is toured by Performing Lines for Blak Lines.

More info about the production can be found at ATYP’s website.