At just 23, playwright Disapol Savetsila is rewriting the small-town coming of age tale with his Sydney Theatre Company debut (he's also the youngest playwright to ever have been programmed as part of their main season). Australian Graffiti is set in regional New South Wales, involves a teenage boy and a teenage girl, maybe some romance – and definitely some racism. But it’s not YA theatre, and don’t expect another Jasper Jones. Australian Graffiti is far more in the spirit of the ‘magical realism’ that Savetsila – or Oakkie, as his friends, family and colleagues call him – loves to read (Gabriel García Márquez and Haruki Murakami are favourites).
Savetsila, who grew up in Bathurst, came to theatre relatively recently (he joined his friend’s amateur theatre company while studying creative writing at the University of Wollongong) and only decided to pursue writing more seriously within the last couple of years, after short works at ATYP, Newcastle's Crack Theatre Festival and Canberra's You Are Here festival.
“Bathurst didn’t have the most vibrant theatre culture,” he says wryly. “But whenever I did see something, I remember always being strongly affected; there’s something very powerful about experiencing live performance in the same room as you.”
Sydney Theatre Company was a big part of his decision to pursue theatre as a career. When literary manager Polly Rowe worked with Oakkie as part of Playwriting Australia’s Lotus salon, she picked him for a Rough Draft (a short development and staged reading, with minimal rehearsal), after which he was commissioned to write a first draft of Australian Graffiti.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Savetsila’s first play is largely inspired by aspects of his life.
Born in Sydney, he moved to Parkes and then Bathurst as a child when his mother decided to relocate her restaurant business. That experience – his and hers – became the grist for story about a family trapped inside their Thai restaurant while a menacing crowd of “zombie-like” locals gather outside. There’s also magical graffiti, and a re-animated corpse.
“The starting point was that exploration of feelings of isolation; being someone who has migrated to a town where you don’t see other faces or hear other languages that are your own, and so the connections are harder to make,” he says. “I saw that in my family; my mum had trouble forming attachments to other people in the town, and I don’t think they were as interested in forming them with her.
“In the Lotus salon we talked about ‘occupying the hyphen’ of being Asian-Australian: sitting within that space between those two cultures and two worlds. A lot of this play came from that place of confusion, of feeling caught between the two.”
Australian Graffiti runs until August 12 at Sydney Theatre Company's Wharf 2 Theatre.
There are several other new Australian plays premiering in Sydney this month: Rice at Griffin Theatre Company, The Plant at Ensemble, Little Borders at Old 505, This Much is True at Old Fitz, and The Incredible Here and Now at National Theatre of Parramatta (Riverside Theatres).
Check out the full gamut of what's on stage in July.