I believe that as humans, as the story-telling, meaning-making machines that we are, we all have a story burning inside us to be told.
For me that is Hairworm, which took form on page for the first time in 2012. It is a story that I am incredibly passionate about telling, to help break the stigma and silence that surround eating disorders and those that suffer from them. It is a work that I have longed to share and have spent many years finding the right words and form to do so.
Hairworm is my first stage-play.
It is also the first work we are presenting as emerging independent company Eye Contact Theatre Company, co-founded by myself, Simon Thomson and Jess Davis. Jess is directing the production. I have only sat in on one rehearsal.
Between securing the season at the Old 505 at the end of last year and launching into rehearsals, I booked a touring job which meant that I would be absent for the crucial months leading up to opening. It has been interesting, though at times a challenge, to totally step away from the rehearsal process and place the script fully in the hands of Jess and the team, but it has, I think, been the best thing for it. This is an ever-evolving play which I have had my eyes and fingerprints all over for seven years, and it was well overdue for some fresh ones.
The play is written with no stage directions and no character delineations, just eight untitled scenes, words cascading down the 60-odd pages, inspired by the likes of Declan Greene, Alana Valentine, Mark Ravenhill, and Sarah Kane.
It is unusual in its form and challenging in its content, but I was confident from the start that it was in the best possible hands. Jess and I have known each other for just over three years, having first met in a production of Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced and since then have become a kind of package deal.
She knows me better than most, and that knowledge paired with her skill set as a director, her keen interest in staging fresh works by Australian writers, her background in the health sector, and the joyous energy she brings to a room set her up perfectly to lead this production.
Jess is no stranger to the play, having now directed it in three staged readings – at Old 505’s Rapid Reads, KXT’s Storytellers Festival, and New Ghost Theatre Company’s Unfold Festival at the Old Fitz – but it is very exciting for her to finally have the chance to fulfil her full director’s vision and for us to experience the play with all the elements of production.
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It has been invaluable for the play to have had so many opportunities to be ‘put to the test’, to gauge audience responses and hear the text interpreted by a range of actors.
The nurturing of new writing is of upmost importance for the growth and sustainability of our industry, and it is encouraging to see companies taking steps towards providing these necessary platforms, enlivening and diversifying the Australian canon.
From the beginning, it was paramount to us to approach this work sensitively and respectfully, with a clear prioritisation of the mental health and well-being of the team.
It was vital that as a production company we created a safe working environment where actors and creatives felt empowered to speak up and engage in conversations around the work. We also wanted to ensure that a sense of fun and play never disappeared from the rehearsal room, as we knew that the strength of the production would be very much dependent on the dynamic and camaraderie of the cast.
Through a long and rewarding audition process, we found nine phenomenal women to form our ensemble, each bringing something unique to the table with their diverse backgrounds and experiences, with contributions that have been instrumental in the rehearsal room.
Putting nine women on stage is not something that we had imagined doing for our inaugural work as a company but we are so thrilled to be doing it and it couldn’t feel more right. The passion and vitality of these women is contagious. Watching them work I felt something deep inside myself ignite.
Our crew is made up of another seven brilliant women, and Simon is our dramaturg which is most fitting given he was the first person to ever read the script (17 drafts ago). The audition and crewing process was a real eye-opener and a reminder of the extent of talent in Sydney, and the lack of opportunities for them on our stages.
I hope that audiences will come and see and support this new Australian female-driven work and the 17 artists who have brought it to life.
Perhaps you will walk away with a greater insight into the mindset of someone diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, or the people in their lives that love them, those 1 in 20 Australians battling this condition. Of course every encounter with ‘Ana’ is different, and this story cannot speak to all of them, but it is a start.
It is not good enough for us to still be joking about or dismissing eating disorders, especially considering that anorexia is the most lethal of all psychiatric disorders. Eating disorders are very real and very serious conditions that do not discriminate, and all evidence points towards raising awareness as a key way of making change and encouraging people to seek early intervention before it becomes more difficult, or is too late.
Maybe the play will simply serve as a reminder to be kinder to yourself and those around you, and don’t we all need those reminders?
Hairworm plays at the Old 505 Theatre, Newtown, October 1-5