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Shakira Clanton performing in Way Back When
Photograph: Brett BoardmanShakira Clanton performing in a read through of Way Back When

Gothic revenge drama Way Back When wins Griffin Award for new Australian playwriting

Winner Dylan Van Den Berg says he's stoked a play about resilience and determination of Aboriginal people has been recognised

Stephen A Russell

Dylan Van Den Berg has been awarded the 2020 Griffin Award for new Australian playwriting for his Gothic revenge drama Way Back When. A darkly comic re-imagining of the colonial wars in Tasmania, it features a no-nonsense ghost bringing together three powerful women to right a terrible wrong.

The Griffin Award, generously supported by Copyright Agency Cultural Fund, is a national competition that celebrates an outstanding play or performance text that displays an authentic, inventive and contemporary Australian voice.

Van Den Berg, a Palawa writer and actor living on Ngunnawal land and with family connections to north-eastern Tasmania, was awarded the $10,000 prize in an online a ceremony. He told Time Out: “I’m so stoked and I’m not even sure it’s fully hit home yet. The Griffin Award honour roll comprises of so many writers I’ve admired from afar, so to be listed alongside them is such an unimaginable honour. My play is about the resilience and determination of Aboriginal people in the face of colonisation. To be recognised in this way and, by extension, to have confirmation that this story resonates with others, makes me feel so proud and hopeful for the future.”

Griffin Award-winner Dylan Van Den Berg
Griffin Award-winner Dylan Van Den BergPhotograph: Supplied

The contest attracted more than 130 entries, and the judging panel assembled Shari Sebbens, Hilary Bell, Michele Lee and Griffin’s artistic director, Declan Greene. They whittled the field down to a shortlist of five, which also included Never Closer by Grace Chapple, 44 Sex Acts in One Week by David Finnigan, Curiosity by Daley Rangi and LuNa by Keziah Warner. They each received $1,000. Warner previously took home STC’s $7,500 Patrick White Playwrights Award for an original, unproduced play for LuNa.

Greene said the shortlisted entries were really remarkable. “Five plays of huge originality, innovation and humanity. But the judges were unanimous in selecting Way Back When. We were blown away by the poetry of Dylan’s voice, and the incredible scope of the drama he has penned.”

The Griffin Award has turbo-boosted the careers of such leading theatrical lights as Lachlan Philpott, Debra Oswald, Brendan Cowell, Mary Rachel Brown and Suzie Miller. Angus Cerini’s 2014 winning entry, The Bleeding Tree, went on to win the NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the Helpmann Award for Best Play two years later.

Van Den Berg plays to date include Milk (The Street Theatre), The Camel (Fringe at the Edge), Why am I a Fish? (Short+Sweet) and Blue: a misery play (First Seen/The Street Theatre). His work has been shortlisted for the Patrick White Playwrights Award, the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award and the Rodney Seaborn Playwrights Award. In other words, watch this space. We predict a big career ahead of him.

What’s next for the future of Sydney’s performing arts? We ask those in the know.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas

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