Australian playwright Suzie Miller puts Perth on stage in her new work, Dust, premiering at the State Theatre Centre of WA later this month. It's a powerful production, as funny as it is touching. Out in Perth sat down with Suzie to talk about the upcoming show and what it means to her.
What inspired you to write this play? What were you hoping to achieve with the script?
The play arrived in a form that was instantly exciting to me. Initially my memory of the Sydney dust storm was one still immediately accessible, I was then in London during the volcanic ash fears and the grounding of airlines fleets, and later reflected on various other life moments where we tend to reach out for human connections. In discovering characters who were urban, contemporary and struggling with common issues I felt an unrelenting desire to weave all of these elements together. I have been admirably supported in developing this work over a long period by Black Swan State Theatre Company, by my dramaturge Polly Lowe and director Emily McLean. This is a Rio Tinto Black Swan Commission. The actors have also been so forthcoming in their character discussions in the early days of development. All of this adds up to a story that has feeling.
The colours used in the production seem to be quite a crucial part of the play, the swirling reds, oranges and pinks of the dust storm are a striking visual. How does the use of colour fit in with the relationships and themes of the play?
Good observation, the colours in the play are indeed intended to be other characters of the play like in a symphony where the different sections with their corresponding compositions each contribute to the whole. As I wrote this play, colour was saturated throughout my imaginary experiences of each character and each story within the larger narrative. The description of these colours became crucial to mood, emotional development, a sense of being in the middle of a passionate uncertain moment, and a sense of loss or joy. It was also the ever-present feeling of the landscape looming over everything.
The play seems to have an apocalyptic atmosphere. What were you hoping to explore with this setting? Is it indicative of environmental destruction or is it more to do with the turmoil of the characters in the play?
The atmosphere is to create a day of heightened reality, a time that might be at the end of everything, or a day that stands alone. The theme is really about how we as humans react in circumstances when there is no real form of comfort other than the truth in our own selves and in looking for the same in others. When things are beyond our control, when uncertainty abounds, we tend to be able to communicate about that which really matters, not only to those we love but to complete and utter strangers. I wanted to explore the magic of those moments, and what might emerge from them.
Setting the play in Perth, a city that has in the last decade really placed itself as an exciting urban international city, allowed the linking of landscape and people in a fundamentally visual, modern and urban sense. Furthermore it allowed for the ever-present nature of mining itself, an economical and critical presence which looms silently and in various forms over daily lives.
The play seems to feature a varied group of characters: FIFO workers, a young bride and her mother, lovers in a hotel suite- how do these characters connect to one another?
Really the connections are mostly about these characters all being in the same day, together, experiencing huge emotional change however if one looks really deeply into the text you might see other resonances. Whether you find those or not is unimportant, the stories all work on their own and there is no necessity for the slight writerly indulgences to be acknowledged. In many ways it is a play where the main character is the city itself and how the characters are all fundamentally changed by it.
Youve said that you aimed to create characters who are uniquely Western Australian, how did you go about this?
The characters came to me in various forms and in a myriad of different ways. I spend a lot of time in Perth, and have spent a more time than I would like in airport lounges so the FIFO character, Ian, came from those experiences. Ian was developed further by talking to a number of FIFOs in the lounge on a particular occasion when my flight east was delayed by nearly 12 hours these men gave me a real insight into how they manage relationships and families with this unique fly in, fly out work situation. The character of mine manager Eddie came to me after extensive interviews with a high level mining manager, and of course in my previous theatre work, Driving into Walls (PIAF 2012) I interviewed over 400 young Western Australians which thoroughly informed my 16 year old character, Ailsa. I have also caught loads of Perth cabs and been involved in discussion with many cabbies who come from other lands and cultures, and have also been lucky to have established strong personal relationships with members of the West Australian indigenous population. All of these experiences you will see inform various characters.
How did the Western Australian landscape inspire your approach to writing the play?
The WA landscape has had a huge impact on me - its vastness and being the largest state of all in this country, has stopped me in my tracks. No other city have I experienced that has such a sense of land. I have repeatedly noticed that Western Australians have a really interesting connection to the space and beauty of WA landscapes. Firstly nearly every WA young person I interviewed during Driving Into Walls noted that one of the reasons they loved WA was due to its sense of space and beauty, and the feeling of freedom this offered them; secondly so many WA adults I have relationships with talk of flora and fauna, together with the landscape with such passion and thoughtfulness; and of course the sense of mining is so present in WA. I feel that issues revolving around landscape and environment are more prominent here than over East. It is interesting to come into a community and realise something so profoundly different about Australians based on the geography of the state itself. It feels like this awareness has created an understanding of distance and a unique resilience not only those who live in isolated WA towns but also in its city dwellers.
Do you have a particular topic or message that youre hoping people will take away from the play?
I would like audiences to take away what resonates with them personally and with their own lives. The actors are doing such a superb job in lifting the characters off the page, and so many of the dilemmas faced by the characters are familiar to us all. I think the play ends on a really hopeful wave, and despite sadness and fragility shows strengths and opportunities for resolution and, indeed, how to find the strength and resilience to go forth.
Sometimes there are days where we are each stopped in our tracks, and as people we connect in ways we wish we could do so in more ordinary circumstances. Maybe audience members will find that momentum, that capacity to seek truth and connection without having to wait for a day of uncertainty. I do feel that we live more fully when we experience such connection and curiosity about each other.
Come see Dust by Suzie Miller at the Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA from 28 June to 13 July 2014. Tickets on sale now through Ticketek.