The city of Darwin offers a playwright a perfect vantage point to observe young people, says Mary Anne Butler.
It’s a diverse city and demographically speaking, it’s a younger city than most. The raw material for drama is never far away.
“When Australian Theatre for Young People contacted me to work on a new project, I literally said, I’ll call you back in an hour,” Butler says. “I just sat there and thought about the young people up here in Darwin, some of the stories I’ve heard, and people I’ve met. Three characters came to me pretty much immediately.”
Those youngsters, Maddie, Elvis and Rosie are now captured in Butler’s new play, Cusp.
Butler worked as a teacher before becoming a playwright, mostly in Far North Queensland.
“I worked in a town where you had bright kids and kids with all sorts of ‘isms’. I started writing little pieces with them and for them, things that were inspired by them,” Butler says. “I’ve always had this immersion in regional young people’s stories.”
Butler has distilled what she’s seen and knows into Maddie, Elvis and Rosie, three teenaged characters facing major decisions that will impact the rest of their lives.
Indigenous woman Rosie (played by Nyasha Ogden in this ATYP production) is a young indigenous woman torn between her community and moving to Sydney to study medicine. Elvis (Josh McElroy) keeps getting tangled up with the cops. Maddie (Stevie Jean), meanwhile, is pregnant. She’s 16.
Each character comes fully loaded with the knowledge Butler has gained over years in the NT.
Rosie, for example, faces the same dilemmas as Butler’s friend and collaborator Rosealee Pearson, a Yolngu woman from Yirrkala who left her community to study dance at NAISDA in Sydney. Pearson later appeared in Butler’s play Broken in 2015.
“When I took on the project, I told ATYP I wasn’t prepared to tell a story based in the NT without having an Aboriginal character,” Butler says. “Likewise, I wasn’t prepared to tell that story without having close collaborative consultancy with an Aboriginal person.
“I’d done some work out at Yirrkala, right up the Cape, and so I asked Rosealee if she would come on as a collaborator in that character’s story. She left Yirrkala to train at NAISDA Dance College in Sydney. Rosie is very much based on her own experience.”
Elvis, meanwhile, “is a real rough head”.
“I’ve met lots of kids like him,” Butler says. “He’s got a heart of gold and he’s always in trouble with cops. He has this saying in the play, ‘some people get better choices to choose from’, and I think that’s true for a lot of kids in Darwin.
“He represents the person who just never got a break but he’s a really good soul, his moral compass is really true. He just keeps missing the mark in terms of the law.
“He’s at that point where either he’s going to make it through or he’s going to end up entrenched in prison system.”
Then there is 16-year-old, pregnant Maddie, played by musician, recording artist and actor Stevie Jean.
Growing up near Darwin, Stevie says she has an intimate understanding of what it is to be faced with choices more privileged youngsters don’t have to make.
“Maddie is quite an extraordinary character to play because there are so many similarities between my life and this girl’s life,” Stevie says. “Playing this character really does have its challenges because I have to go through things I’ve seen and been through. There’s an emotional toll but I think it’s worth it because there are stories that need to be told.”
Stevie, 20, says she’s had close friends deal with teen pregnancies in an environment where young women experience a lack of support and a great deal of judgment.
“I’ve supported friends through pregnancy. I’ve driven friends to abortion clinics who have never even told their parents they’re pregnant because of the stigma around it,” she says. “And these things are far more common than media and government want you to believe.”
Though the play is full of humour and incident, the picture painted in Cusp is not an unrealistically upbeat one, says Butler. “There’s been a shift in society. In my generation, we kind of knew at some level that everything was going to work out, OK. There was a sense that the Australian dream was still attainable. These days, young people look around and go, OK, well, I’m not going to get that because I can’t afford it. And actually, the planet is probably not gonna make it anyway.
“The choices young people have to make are being pushed on them a lot earlier,” Butler adds. “They have to grow up quicker. You don’t have that opportunity to tread water for five years and see what happens, which is what I was able to do.
“I think it’s really cruel, really unfair. Kids don’t get the time now to just work out who they are.”
Cusp arrives in Sydney after a debut season at Brown’s Mart Theatre in Darwin in late 2019.
“That was a great time, it was beautiful,” Butler recalls. “There was a lot of laughter and a lot of tears towards the end. The loveliest moment for me was when some parents came up with their 12 or 13-year-old kids and said, we just want to share this and see what our kids’ are about to go through.
“I think you’d be a very hard-hearted person if you weren’t affected by it. Fraser [Corfield] and the team have done such a beautiful job. They’ve got the rhythms, a great climax … I’m very, very, very happy with.”
Stevie is looking forward to giving Sydney audiences a taste of NT life, served raw.
“I think it’s really important for those people who live in the cities where decisions are made that affect our lives in remote areas see how those things play out. You’ll understand a little bit more about what the rest of world is going through.
“And I hope that young people who come to see it can take away something they need from it. Just a bit of something that will make them feel less alone.”