Over a two-year period from 2011, the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) and playwrights Rachael Coopes & Wayne Blair (The Sapphires, Redfern Now, Gods of Wheat Street), undertook a series of residencies in Katherine, conducting workshops and developing relationships with the kids in the community.

In spite of its geographical isolation, Rachael & Wayne found universal themes amongst these deep & richly personal stories. They’ve been commended for their realistic portrayals of these teenagers and their local youth worker – as we follow the unlikely friendship between Nina and Erica. In Sugarland, a work that aims to shock, provoke and inspire audiences, we’re being asked to find out what’s happening in this environment & what we can do about it; whilst exploring complex issues of teen pregnancy, youth unemployment, self harm, peer pressure and homelessness.

Prior to its season at the Playhouse Rehearsal Room at the Arts Centre Melbourne, (and before it continues its National Tour onto WA & NSW) I posed the following questions to Wayne.

SugarlandWhat is the significance of the title?
Our title Sugarland, pertains directly to the story that Nina shares with us, the audience. It is a metaphor for how we exist as human beings in the society we have created today.

In relation to emotive storytelling, I read an interview that you’d done with the SMH regarding Redfern Now, where you credited UK writer Jimmy McGovern (Story Producer) as highlighting to you, the importance of saying things you might normally hesitate about. Was that the case at all with Sugarland?
The script for Sugarland was in direct response to the information gathered from the kind and generous people of Katherine. Shaped by Rachael and myself, the detail evolved naturally and Rachael and I knew throughout what it was going to feel like. This was different. We never shirked from the truth and kept communication open with the people of Katherine in always getting permission and informing them what we were going to say.

The play has been described as haunting. Is that how you’d describe it? 
To a slight extent. It feels real and only a snapshot of what happens within the universe of what teens in Katherine experience in day-to-day life.

Is there humour & lightness in Sugarland?
I feel there is. Laughter is the best medicine.

What are you hoping audiences will take away from the production? And have you sat in on performances & watched their reactions? 
I want the audience to see themselves up there on stage. No matter if you’re old, young, black or white, a Katherine local or not. I have sat in on a number of shows and the feedback has been positive so that is lovely. My mum loved the show when it was performed in Rockhampton recently!

In terms of creative collaboration, had you worked with any of the creatives or cast members before?
Only Rachael Coopes and my beautiful cousin, David Page.

Were any of the teens involved in these workshops cast or rather, were they & their stories, the inspiration for the characters?
All the stories were mainly from Katherine locals. Our actors helped sharpen and shape the existing material with their own journeys as individuals.

What is it that you enjoy about the collaborative process when writing? And how exactly did that collaboration work? 
Rachael was the main force with writing the finished product. I read drafts and then we would make notes and discuss, and she would work on it from there. We make a great team.

What do you think/feel were the most challenging aspects of writing the script?
Permission and protocol. It was not challenging as such, as I am always aware of this. It is a necessary process to constantly keep communication alive and ongoing from the beginning of the writing process to the final draft and beyond, by any means necessary. Communication and respect is key when dealing with Indigenous stories. It’s imperative. This is how I was brought up. 

Following on from that, were there any challenging aspects when bringing this story to the stage?
Not really. Rachael and I were always in communication until Fraser and David stepped into direct. 

What do you believe your acting experience brings to your writing?
Never really thought of it. Detail. Nuance perhaps. Still trying to work it out myself.

For you, what’s the best part of playwriting?
Writing a sequence. Writing a moment that works. Hearing it for the first time by actors. For Sugarland, the best part of the process was the collaboration with Rachael.

Sugarland plays at the Arts Centre Melbourne from 19 – 21 May 2016. Further details»

Photo – (top right) Tracey Schramm

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