Julian Larnach didn’t plan to become a playwright.
It wasn’t the kind of thing that entered a kid’s head growing up on a beef cattle farm just outside of Coonabarabran, Central West NSW, a seven-hour drive north-west of Sydney.
Larnach’s father ran the farm. His mother worked as a GP in town, says the 28-year-old, now Sydney-based writer. “She was with Doctors Without Borders so we spent a bit of time in Saudi Arabia and Papua New Guinea, as well.”
Those formative experiences led Larnach to study Government and International Relations at University of Sydney. “For so long I wanted to be an aide worker and I wanted to be a diplomat but ended up in writing,” he says. It also informs his new play, Flight Paths, which gets its premiere at the Riverside courtesy of National Theatre of Parramatta, from March 15.
The play is a two-stranded coming-of-age story. Luisa is a 17-year-old African-Australian woman who has travelled to England from Sydney to study at Oxford University. We meet her in Orientation Week.
Emily, 28, also a Sydneysider, is an Anglo-Australian woman who has just arrived in Nairobi in Kenya to work as a volunteer in the district of Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa.
“No one even really knows how many people live in Kibera,” Larnach says. “It’s next to a golf course, so it’s adjacent to the richest neighbourhood in Nairobi.”
During a week in their lives, we observe Luisa coming to terms with the privilege her university is built upon, while Emily uncovers corruption in the organisation she works for and once admired. Intriguingly, both women are connected via a mysterious man who has seemingly fallen from the sky.
“Both young women are at moments in life where they are coming of age in different ways,” says Larnach. “One is discovering the world for the first time, and the other one is coming to terms with what she has done so far and the crisis of confidence that sometimes comes with that.
“It looks at how people try and do good in the world and fit into the world in a responsible way. Luisa has cultural expectations to live up to, while Emily is asking herself, what are my responsibilities in terms of checking my privilege as well as using that same privilege for good?”
Flight Paths is directed by Anthea Williams, this year’s winner of Best Director at the Sydney Theatre Awards for her Belvoir production of Taylor Mac’s radical domestic comedy Hir. She is a specialist in bringing new Australian work to the stage. In her six years with Belvoir she fostered plays including Leah Purcell’s Helpmann Award-winning The Drover’s Wife, Nakkiah Lui’s Kill the Messenger and Jada Alberts’ Brothers Wreck.
“I like doing work by women and people of colour because so much of the theatrical canon is by dead white men,” Williams says. “I want to privilege other voices.”
Flight Paths reminded Williams of earlier times in her own life, she adds. “I moved to Australia when I was 18 from Christchurch to study at University of NSW and I really remember that feeling of being like a fish out of water, and that was just travelling three hours on a plane and not 24 hours and finding myself at Oxford.
“I also remember finishing the Directing course at the VCA in Melbourne and falling into a black hole afterwards because it was so hard to figure out how your life fits together.
“But I also know how privileged I’ve been. I’ve got to live and work in different countries. One thing that is really interesting in this play is it talks about who gets to move around the world and who doesn’t.”
Williams has cast Ebony Vagulans in the role of Luisa. Born in Sydney to parents of Tanzanian and Australian-Latvian heritage, Vagulans is a rising star, most recently seen by Riverside audiences in Alice in Wonderland (Sydney Festival) and in Griffin Theatre’s 2017 production of Diving for Pearls.
Emily is played by Airlie Dodds, whose films include the recent Australian horror film Killing Ground and the no less grisly stage drama The Bleeding Tree for Griffin Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company.
They are joined on stage by Brandon McClelland (Ensemble Theatre’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the STC’s Broadway production of The Present, with Cate Blanchett) and emerging actors Richie Morris and Monica Kumar.
“The two young women in the play are the only Australian characters,” says Williams. “There is a Chinese character, a couple of British characters and one from Kibera. So every other scene is set in England or Africa. It has a really global approach and that is what I like about it. It shows the world these young people have inherited and now have to take responsibility for. They are the people deciding where it goes next, which is something every young person has to face.”
Williams met Larnach at Belvoir when he worked as an intern with the company.
Williams invited him in twice a week to read plays and offer notes, sit in on feedback sessions with playwrights and to see live theatre together. “That was great because we got to talk about it straight after,” Williams says.
When Flight Paths was first workshopped with actors at Australian Theatre for Young People (where Larnach was resident playwright), Williams was brought in as the director for the day.
“Anthea has done a lot of work on new writing, so I felt safe with her,” Larnach says. “She is good at pushing you to dig deeper, rewrite, and come back. That’s what you need as a writer.”
Larnach’s previous work includes the futuristic drama In Real Life (staged by Darlinghurst Theatre Company in 2017) and a number of works developed through Australian Theatre for Young People and Outback Theatre for Young People in the Riverina. He is currently a resident playwright at Sydney Theatre Company.
Larnach says he sent the script for Flight Paths to National Theatre of Parramatta because of its subject matter and the global nature of the work. “I wanted to put a global story in a theatre in Parramatta because the local community is such a melting pot,” he says. “It’s looking at how young people interact with the world and sometimes it’s through volunteer work or through education. These are both Sydney characters and it starts in Sydney and goes out into the world from there.”
Larnach hopes audiences will enjoy seeing a specific part of Africa described on stage.
“Sometimes we can fall into thinking the entire continent and its people are amorphous, or all the same. It’s important to interrogate that thinking,” he says.
“For example, I was working with a group at The Joan [Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith] last year who were recently settled in Sydney from Liberia. These guys from Liberia had a comedy troupe and they were looking to do slapstick and comedy writing.”
Larnach admits he’s writing about characters and lives beyond his own experience.
“I am a white Anglo-Australian male but this is a deliberately global play. It’s been a joy for me to bring the actors and creative people in to check what I’m saying. I’m not claiming to have the authentic story of these characters but bringing this group together in rehearsals and in front of an audience is really exciting, just to get the discussion going on global issues.”
Williams says the show will be fast-paced, dramatic and studded with funny moments. “Most of all it’s hopeful. Of course, there are challenging things that happen but you are watching young people doing their best. Making mistakes but doing their best, and that’s not something that just young people do. I think audiences will find it hopeful and they will have a lot of questions. Most great theatre does that.”
Larnach says he’s thrilled to be working with a young cast. Most of the actors are in their teens or early twenties. “I write for everyone. But the impetus behind writing the play is I still have living muscle memory of being a young person … so I should write these stories now. And to put these young stories in front of an older audience or a wider audience is really exciting. I love every single one of these characters. I want to put them in front of audiences and introduce them as if they are imaginary friends.”