Winner of the 2009 Griffin Award, Silent Disco exists between the violence of poetry and the music of a fight. Australian Stage's Paul Andrew speaks to playwright Lachlan Philpott.

Lachlan PhilpottTell me about one particularly memorable occasion you remember now about your time with Forest Youth Theatre?

In the middle of a culturally barren Sydney suburb right next to the football fields and squash courts, the local council built a brand new theatre complex, Glen St. My parents Bob and Penny set up Forest Youth Theatre Company there when it opened in 1984. They ran the company there for over 20 years ensuring generations of young people were given agency within a new cultural hub and had fun through involvement in theatre making.

They both worked full-time work but the theatre company was their consuming passion. If my brother and I had not been involved in it we could have easily led all sorts of juicy teenage double lives. For me there was little question of not being involved. I have an unorthodox personality and there are few places as accepting than the theatre. And, like many kids who turn to youth theatre instead of cricket or Brownies or bongs, it gave me a worthwhile place to belong.

For the most part FYTC produced musicals. They absorbed massive casts (some up to 150) and attracted big audiences. These were not the self devised self empowering contemporary collaborative productions that get funded today, but the outcomes were the same.

I have vivid memories of about thirty productions – incidents onstage, accidents off, personalities, hickied romances, massive highs and genuine tragedies. Sadly, my most enduring memory is the day following Bob’s sudden death in 2003. He was in the middle of directing an FYTC play and it was a week out from production. I volunteered to step in to take over directing and the first rehearsal was the most difficult I have ever been in. While we got through and the show got up, that terrible old saying ‘the show must go on’ is one I will never prescribe to again.

What was the most inspiring thing – and indeed the most enduring thing – for you about being involved in youth theatre group at that time?
The realisation that theatre is one of the only places where having imagination gives you agency.

Tell me about the concept behind and writing of Silent Disco Lachlan?
I don’t really approach plays with a ‘concept’ as such. At the time I began writing this play I was thinking a lot about choices I made in my life. I had left working as Artistic Director of Tantrum Theatre in Newcastle and returned to Sydney and gone back to secondary teaching. I was appointed to teach English and Drama at an inner city high school, strangely enough, the same school my father first taught at in the 1970’s. I had vague memories of visiting there when I was a kid but on the first day I went there to teach it just seemed like any other school. (The lingering presence of my father took longer to reveal itself). I did realise on the first day that my Head of English, Lorraine had been teaching there when my father had.

I had not been in the classroom for about eight years and I noticed a huge shift in how things worked. As a teacher you weren’t just competing with kids and outside distractions to bring about learning, you were also competing with a range of new mobile technologies.

I had this eerie moment in the musty book room during my first week there. I was looking for something my year 10’s would enjoy reading. In that futile search not only did I come across books that had been there longer than Lorraine but I discovered a box of stuff my dad had left there – papers he’d marked and had not returned, notes he’d written concerned about students, some wrapper from what he ate at recess. I was struck at that moment by the chorology of that moment and the realisation that there was a reason I had ended up there.

Silent Disco is a story about high school communities. A meditation on the webs of relationships shared in schools, the traumas of adolescence, the impact of technology and problematic disparities brought about by racial and socio economic inequities. The play is an unashamed homage to teachers. Mrs Petchall is made from about ten amazing teachers I have encountered who battle it out in shithouse schools and make a difference every day.

Has working at ATYP with the FRESH INK program helped with the development of this work, if so in what ways, and other influences?
I wrote Silent Disco before I began work at atyp.

Clearly though I have spent a lot of time working in youth theatres. I have a rampant  inner teenager which shapes a lot of my behaviour. It helps when writing plays like this but it is an impairment I wish could exorcise in other contexts.

My work at atyp with Fresh Ink was focussed on how we can connect young writers to their voice and how we get theatre companies to focus on developing writers not plays. It is a privilege to work with emerging artists even if we all wonder what scene they are emerging into.

Does Silent Disco pick up on and unpack any earlier themes in your earlier plays – Bison, Bustown, Colder, Due Monday – if so tell me about these in some detail?
It is difficult to think about my own plays in terms of their themes. It reminds me of this time when our neighbour Ben Lemon swallowed a marble and his mum Jenny had to pick through his shit with a fork until they knew it had passed. I’ll try forking through...

Due Monday is also about a teacher, Rhoda Starling. She started growing feathers and eventually turned into a bird. I wrote that play just after Dad died and there is a connection between it and Silent Disco because they both have female teacher characters who are struggling with the system their operate within.

What Silent Disco shares with Bison, Colder and Bustown is probably more about experiments with form but they each examines the impact of technologies on our personal connections.

I am obsessed with the quality of our connections. According to Alyson Campbell, my dear collaborator and UK academic all my plays share a sense that we can never really know other people in our lives properly.

Lachlan PhilpottA "Silent Disco" would have been an anathema at once upon a time, today it happens. Technology is turning us upside down, what does this play offer in terms of understanding, utilising and dancing along with changing technologies, particularly personal devices?
Actually silent discos have been happening informally for a long time. (Check out Wikipedia).

The Silent Disco that inspired the play in a literal sense began in Utrecht as part of The Parade Theatre Festival and was a low tech way for performers to party without attracting neighbours complaints. People enjoy the novelty and it has spread all over the world. I saw it when I was teaching over in Holland and was so entranced by it as a perfect metaphor for what is happening in other parts of our lives.

You could also argue that many of us have silent discos going on in our heads all the time to help us deal with or block out our realities. But what you suggest about the i pod phenomenon changing our lives is true. They have certainly brought about radical shifts allowing many of us all to connect to and self-select soundtracks to our lives and in turn block other noises out. I am curious about the sustained impact of the i-pod. I have seen how it affects classrooms but stand still in any public space and the impact of phones and i-pods is stark. Whatever happened to bird song?

The idea of a shared disco space where people can wear their headsets listen to their preferred music, while dancing and co-mingling with others also seems rather utopian – what about its flaws?
Petchall, the teacher in Silent Disco laments the end of school discos when she says;
We used to have discos, when deejays played records and kids actually danced. Girls with lipstick and blush- first kiss at the disco-slicked back boys with nasty cologne who’d look away and say, you wanna dance Miss?
Silent discos are fun but give me one DJ, big speakers, a mirror ball, eye contact and collective euphoria any night.

That said, it’s only a matter of time until the mobile phone becomes the singular preferred interface for almost everything media and telecommunications, what does Silent Disco foreground about this type of future in the present moment?

Something Orwellian I fear.

There is a "lock down" in the play – without giving too much away tell me a little about this school setting and moment, a little insight to the characters involved and how the characters deal with it?
There are two lockdowns in the play. The first one is a drill. The second is not. It changes people’s lives forever. People tell me it’s heartbreaking.

Silent Disco by Lachlan Philpott opens at the Arts Centre, Melbourne, 3 August 2011. Details»