It’s that feeling of unease when you hear your favourite brand of cereal has been permanently removed from the shelves or an iconic television program fails to renew another season. Change might be as painful as it is necessary, but when you introduce family it’s always complicated. Actor, playwright and academic Felix Nobis’ Boy out of the Country, which will have its Sydney premiere on November 24, centres on the inherent obstacles and changes that confront the seemingly constant unit of family. The script follows the manoeuvres, pressures and inevitable conflicts that a family undergoes as their regional town develops. More than just changing landscapes, the play raises uncomfortable questions of nostalgia, values and family conflict.
First time-director Erica Lovell drew on her own small town origins in staging the play. As semi-regional areas undergo significant development and with the added personal resonance of family disruption, Lovell felt the play spoke to her on a number of levels. Everyone has a family, and as Lovell said, “even people who have unfortunately lost family very early create a family of their own, so we all know what it’s like to experience periods of struggle within these home units of support.”
The play’s Banjo Patterson-style poeticism also attracted Lovell in a way that she felt differed from some directors who might find it daunting. “The poetry of the play is very moving for me,” Lovell expressed. “I am a bit of an English literature nerd so for me the idea of starting off directing something in verse felt like home”. When Lovell describes the analytical rehearsal process for the play’s vernacular, it is clear that she values the layers of meaning which poetic works offer. Describing the language analysis as similar to how you would approach Shakespeare, Lovell said, “we do spend time at the table analysing the piece as a work of poetry and finding the devices that are there and how that unlocks meaning for it, and then sort of stepping back from it and relaxing.”
However, poetic analysis is only one aspect of how Lovell and the cast engage with the play’s meaning. Also crucial to capturing the play’s essence was the often confronting engagement with people’s formative personal experiences. Lovell felt that this process was challenging but said, “you cannot help but ask people to reflect on their own experiences and you cannot help but to reflect on your own.” While Lovell upheld the privacy of the rehearsal space, she reflected upon the confronting memories of family loss which inspired her creative process.
“There are themes in the play about elderly family members and I’ve lost all my grandparents so I can’t help but remember experiences with my grandmother in her later days. [The] wonderful Jeannie Gee so much reminds me of my grandmother, and that’s been a little challenging,” Lovell expressed.
A quintessentially Australian story with a regional family context and lyrical style reminiscent of 19th century bush poetry, Boy out of the Country could seem to be simply rehashing themes bound up in Australiana. However, as Lovell notes, an over-emphasis on Australiana is not what Boy out of the Country is about and nor should it be the objective of Australian theatre. It is “first and foremost about telling stories that are human,” as Lovell said, confident that the play’s deeply resonating themes of human relationships, humour and darkness, will transcend national vernaculars.
After all, it is the very familiar complexity of relationships that eternally interests us as humans. As Lovell said, Boy out of the Country is certainly not an elitist play in its focus on the trials and tribulations of ordinary people. “I think if we’re going to grow with theatre audiences I think it is really important that we tell stories that people are going to recognise but that still provoke thought,” Lovell said. “Theatre is life plus.”
While Lovell admits she is terrified for her directorial debut, the opportunity to seize greater creative autonomy as “custodian of the vision”, is what has excited Lovell most about this new role.
Boy out of the Country will premiere as part of the inaugural Pioneer Play Festival. For more visit www.pioneerplayfestival.com