When writer Lewis Treston took a call from ATYP artistic director Fraser Corfield in 2017, one offering him a role in creating a work on youth homelessness, Treston assumed it was some kind of misunderstanding.
After all, Treston’s calling card was his 2017 Patrick White Award-winning Schoolies eve comedy Hot Tub.
“I had no direct experiences with homelessness and my work to date had primarily been zany comedies, so I assumed Fraser called the wrong person,” Treston says.
The project, Corfield explained, would be based on a series of workshops and interviews with young people with lived experience of homelessness. From these, a play would emerge.
“I was utterly terrified that I’d mess it all up but I had faith that the ATYP team would redirect me in the event things went off course,” says Treston. “I agreed to the project, hung up the phone, and started researching like mad.”
So began the process that led to Follow Me Home, which has its premiere at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta this week.
Youth homelessness is a complex topic in which a number of issues intersect. Poverty, abuse, mental health and family instability are just a few of the jigsaw pieces.
According to state government figures, more than 18,108 young people aged 15-24 years were helped by specialist homelessness services in New South Wales.
Some sleep rough. Others live in boarding houses or in crisis accommodation. Many couch-surf with family and friends.
More than 90 per cent of young people surveyed in these situations say they have witnessed violence in their home. Over 50 per cent have mental health conditions.
But statistics don’t tell the whole story. Nor do they easily translate into theatre.
“What became clear to me, during the workshops, once I put my research down, was that none of the young people were a ‘statistic’,” Treston says.
“Each of them was a real person, filled with nuance and complexity, with a very particular story that was unique to them, and I knew I wanted to communicate some sense of that uniqueness and common humanity with the audience.”
Interviewing people who have experienced homelessness proved to be a steep learning curve, Treston admits.
“I didn’t want people to experience a sort of re-traumatisation. I just wanted to be on the receiving end of whatever it was they wanted to tell me and it was up to them to decide how much they wanted me to know.
“Some workshops were more like hanging out really, and I often found that just doing that was quite revealing. You get a real sense of who these people are and what they’ve been through.”
In Follow Me Home, audiences will hear the recorded voices of young people who have experienced homelessness during the course of the play. They will also experience the fictionalised dramatic arc of a script performed by actors Laneikka Denne, Jordan Dulieu, Jasper Lee-Lindsay and Sofia Nolan.
“People might think a homeless person is on the street, in dirty clothes and has a drug or alcohol problem,” says Nolan. “But that’s a stereotype. For example, one character I play is a happy, bubbly, excitable young woman who has pulled herself out of one of the darkest experiences a young person can have. Another has post-traumatic stress disorder. A lot of the characters have a mental illness. It might be anxiety or depression or abandonment issues. These are people facing some heavy stuff at a very young age.
“Mental health is a huge part of being homeless and it’s something we don’t talk about,” Nolan says.
The subject of homelessness is a difficult one and the experiences Follow Me Home describes are sometimes confronting. But audiences should be prepared for surprises, says Treston.
Follow Me Home is a play about resilience, survival and hope.
“The people I met were often very normal, like, very funny young people with a great deal of energy. They all had a sense of humour and a kind of levity that I wanted to capture and integrate that into the show.”
The take-home, says Treston, is that the young and homeless are no different to anyone else, except in their circumstances.
“My hope is simply that the audience leave the theatre with a deeper appreciation for our shared humanity and that they are more thoughtful in how they perceive other people whose experiences might be vastly different from their own.”
Follow Me Home plays the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, May 29-31