Lee Lewis is certainly the most outwardly enthusiastic of all Sydney’s artistic directors (her foyer speeches could power a Tesla); she’s also perhaps the most courageous. At the helm of Griffin Theatre Company for five years, and having navigated Australia Council funding cuts that required her to reduce the 2017 season from five to four plays, Lewis has announced a 2018 program that gives the ‘home of new Australian writing’ over to new voices.
Four of the five plays on Griffin’s stage next year have been commissioned from young writers for whom it will be their first professional mainstage production: 2017 Griffin Award-winner David Finnigan, London-based expats Brooke Robinson (shortlisted for the Griffin Award) and Kendall Feaver, and FBi SMAC Award-winner Nick Coyle (currently receiving glowing reviews in Edinburgh Fringe for his gothic farce Queen of Wolves).
Lewis describes these four as part of a new wave of Australian writers who are “angry, and not content with the status quo. And they are brought up on Australian playwrights; they are not seeking to find an ‘Australian voice’ – they have it, they take it for granted, and they are using it in really sophisticated theatrical ways.”
It’s always going to be more courageous to program new voices than known ones: it’s not only that audiences favour names they recognise, it’s also a matter of quality – generally, practice makes almost-perfect.
On the other hand, several of these young writers have been developing their craft for quite a long time. Nick Coyle has a resume that stretches back more than a decade, and includes comedy and cabaret (in 2007 he won the Golden Gibbo Award for best independent show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival). Kendall Feaver started winning awards (for her short plays) in 2006, and – like Brooke Robinson – went through ATYP’s 2011 Fresh Ink program. David Finnigan founded his first theatre-making collective – and wrote and directed his first feature length play – in 2001, and has co-founded and directed two indie festivals: Newcastle’s Crack Theatre Festival and Canberra’s You Are Here.
In other words: these writers have runs on the board.
The fifth play in Griffin’s 2018 season, a reworking of Molière’s 17th century satire The Misanthrope, is by veteran writer Justin Fleming – the fourth in his series of adaptations of the French farceur for Bell Shakespeare, following The School for Wives, Tartuffe and The Literati (the last of which was also co-produced by Griffin and Bell).
Interestingly, all five plays appear to be stories in which women are the leads.
Griffin is also running a variation of their annual Griffin Independent season, due to a partnership with ATYP that will see them co-share the stage in 2018. Lewis explains, “we didn’t have the same space for an indie program, but what we do have space for are a number of one- and two-week seasons of works from around the country; works that might not be able to hold a full season at Griffin, but could definitely attract a two-week audience of people who desperately want to see them.”
These include Melbourne and Adelaide Fringe award-winning show FAG/STAG, by writer-performers Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Chris Isaacs; playwright Hannie Rayson’s comedic one-woman show based on stories from her novel Hello, Beautiful!; Daniel Tobias’ autobiographical cabaret The Orchid and the Crow, featuring songs by Otto & Astrid (Die Roten Punkte); the return of playwright Jessica Bellamy’s 2014 show Shabbat Dinner; and Susie Youssef and Phil Spencer’s romantic comedy The Smallest Hour.
Spencer is also curating a three-week festival of independent experimental performance, called Batch Festival (sponsored by Batch Brewery).
Below is a snapshot of what you to expect on Griffin’s mainstage in 2018.
Kill Climate Deniers by David Finnigan
Feb 23-Apr 7
Finnigan achieved the wrong kind of fame in 2014 when the first iteration of this play, commissioned by a fellow independent theatre-maker and funded by Arts ACT, was the centre of a media storm after Andrew Bolt made it the subject of an editorial. If he had read the play, he would have found it to be a satire in which a group of eco-terrorists take over Parliament House on the night of a Fleetwood Mac concert, with the intent of taking the Environment Minister hostage until the government takes action on climate change.
“That [media] storm got too big for that small group [of theatre-makers] to contend with, and the project collapsed,” says Lewis.
Finnigan went on to create a concept album inspired by '90s-era rave bangers, and a ‘guided audio tour’ through Parliament House. An altered version of the original play eventually got a staging at the 2016 Melbourne Fringe Festival, though it was a lo-fi version in which he played every role.
For its mainstage debut, Kill Climate Deniers will be directed by Lewis, and star Lucia Mastrantone (as the lead eco-terrorist), Sheridan Harbridge and Rebecca Massey.
Lewis describes it as a comedy, but adds: “It speaks to a despair in a young generation about their capacity to bring about change in the most important ways for the planet.”
Good Cook. Friendly. Clean by Brooke Robinson
May 4-Jun 16
Former Malthouse Theatre artistic director Marion Potts is helming the premiere of Robinson’s dark, sharp examination of Sydney’s housing-affordability and homelessness crises. Tara Morice (Strictly Ballroom) stars as Sandra, who in her fifties finds herself suddenly evicted from her sharehouse. Desperate to find a new home, she undertakes a series of contortions to transform herself into the ‘perfect housemate’.
“It’s an awful comedy – until it’s not,” says Lewis.
The Almighty Sometimes by Kendall Feaver
Jul 27-Sep 8
Kendall Feaver’s award-winning play looks at what happens when a young woman, who has been medicated for mood and behavioural disorders since she was six years old, takes herself off her medications at age 20.
“It’s a question I think a lot of families will be facing as their kids get older: where their diagnosis ends and their personality begins,” says Lewis.
Shortlisted for the Griffin Award in 2015, a re-draft of this play recently won the Judges Award for the Bruntwood Competition – a major European playwriting award run out of the Royal Exchange in Manchester.
Lewis will direct the Australian premiere of this play (which has its world premiere in the UK) starring Hannah Waterman as a mother who has spent her child’s lifetime trying to keep her alive.
The Feather in the Web by Nick Coyle
Oct 5-Nov 17
Lewis describes this play as a “beautiful speculation about how a young woman finds her voice. When the world tells you so much about how you should behave and what you should do to be successful, how do you find your individual voice?
Nick Coyle has established a cult following since emerging from Sydney University, forming the trio Pig Island with comedic actors Charlie Garber and Claudia O’Doherty (with whom he made Simply Fancy and The Glass Boat), and going solo with truly surreal comedies like Hammerhead (Is Dead) (which played as part of Griffin’s independent season in 2009), Me Pregnant! (Old Fitz Theatre, 2011) and Blue Wizard (Belvoir Downstairs, 2015).
“It’s a weird play,” Lewis says of Coyle’s latest, though she says it’s a more accessible story than his previous works.
Actor-director Ben Winspear will helm this premiere production, with a cast that includes Nikki Shiels, Tina Bursill, Gareth Davies and Michelle Lim Davidson.
The Misanthrope by Justin Fleming
Aug 28-Sep 28
This adaptation of Molière’s 17th century comedy by Sydney playwright Justin Fleming is the third collaboration between Griffin and Bell Shakespeare (following Tartuffe and The Literati).
The formula has proved a success so far, but even Lewis had her doubts about this particular Molière play. “When Peter Evans first said to me ‘How about The Misanthrope’, I was like gawd, I really don’t want to do another thing with an old dude in love with a young woman and it’s all so tragic! But then he said ‘What if the lead was a woman?’.”
Screen favourite Danielle Cormack will star, with Lewis at the helm.
Subscriptions to Griffin Theatre Company's 2018 season are on sale now. Single tickets go on sale December 4.