White collar office life gets skewered in this new Australian play, premiering at Griffin
Toxic work situations almost never begin dangerously. There might be a few red flags here and there – an unprofessionally angry response from an executive, a few punishingly long weeks without respite or even thanks – but generally you don’t quite know how bad it is until you’re in it.
Ross Mueller’s A Strategic Plan is every work nightmare you’ve ever had: part Ask a Manager, part Save the Community Centre/Hey Let’s Put on a Show section of TV Tropes, it’s particularly “triggering” for anyone who has worked in the not-for-profit sector.
Andrew (Justin Smith) is an ex-musician who once played bass for Powderfinger, but that was a long time ago. He’s the new Music Director and co-CEO of STACCATO, a non-profit music venue that offers workshops, capacity building and a place to play for young artists. At first, it’s a kind of hilarious culture clash as business jargon collides with Andrew’s real-world solutions and common sense. We grimace and laugh as STACCATO’s out of touch board chair (Matt Day) puts the kibosh on all Andrew’s innovations and suggestions, displaying his own lack of interest in music – the heart and soul of the business – in the process.
When the Board decides to sell the STACCATO venue – its greatest asset – junior employee Jill (Emele Ugavule) is the only person willing to fight alongside Andrew to save it. She too has a passion for music and an ability to see through bullshit – and though she’s keen to help raise money and STACCATO’s output by throwing the festival-to-end-all-festivals, she’s facing some harrowing workplace treatment of her own.
As soon as we’re comfortable with this narrative, Mueller veers away from cheerful isn’t-the-professional-world-ridiculous humour and takes us into dark territory: the fallout from Andrew’s unfair dismissal.
Andrew’s struggle against corporate gaslighting and heartlessness taps directly into that visceral, residual memory of stress many of those with office jobs carry around like a scab – tender scar tissue lies just underneath. His mental health suffers. The legal system, which caseworker Leanne (Briallen Clarke) attempts to help him navigate, is exhausting, and the longer the process of justice drags on, the more Andrew has to keep reliving his worst moments.
Past and present bleed into each other under Mueller’s deft structural hand. Cheeky fourth-wall-breaking moments and visual motifs ease us from scene to scene, and director Chris Mead negotiates these transitions effectively, deploying music (Steve Francis) and lighting (Verity Hampson) to keep the tension high and the volume loud.
The ensemble work together as a strong unit – hilarious, a little outrageous, and all on the same comic page with sharp timing and buoyant conversational rhythm. Clarke, who alongside Leanne also plays HR specialist and STACCATO board member Linda, is chirpily terrifying and disarmingly realistic – you’ve probably met a board member just like her. Matt Day’s executive is a fast-talking, bottom-line-obsessed villain who doesn’t need to twirl a moustache or overstate his position: he’s always wildly inappropriate but never cartoonish. His turn as Perkins the solicitor is much more restrained but no less enjoyable.
Justin Smith generally plays broader, more comic roles and his dramatic chops are often underrated, but here carries the play with a down-to-earth melancholy and sincere love of music that’s endearing, recognisable, and well-rounded.
With funding to the arts and culture sectors facing round after round of devastating cuts, especially under the recent reign of George Brandis, there is an unsustainable demand on non-executive employees to achieve magic, music and results out of little more than their own willpower and unpaid overtime. The sector is in the middle of a mental health crisis: more than half of its members have sought professional help for mental health issues, and almost half suffer from moderate to severe anxiety. Sleep issues, overwork, and depression are all at elevated rates.
The industry is hurting, and Mueller’s play doesn’t hide that underbelly from his audience. His script is laugh out loud funny, but it’s also savagely angry at a sector and government that treats artists and arts workers as disposable.