The Carousel is a play written for and about young women but some of the best comments its director Hannah Goodwin has heard about it have come from young men.
“There is a scene where one of the sisters in the play is finding it difficult to put a tampon in,” Goodwin says. “I had three or four young men say afterwards that they had no idea it might be difficult. They thought it would be easy.
“It’s like they’re seeing women for the first time because we are showing the stuff we usually keep locked out of sight.”
Written by Pippa Ellams, The Carousel is a portrait of two sisters, Christa and Jamie. They, for reasons made deliberately cloudy, are more than close. They are utterly co-dependent.
Their parents are never seen but their anger is palpable. Neither is guiding their daughters through the tumultuous years of early adulthood, a period in which the younger Jamie (played by Alex Francis) has become withdrawn and Christa (Tasha O’Brien) has embarked on an affair with a married man.
The play was originally developed for a season at Shopfront Arts Co-op in 2017. The critical reaction was very positive.
“There’s a confidence at work here … with dialogue crackling with truth and insight,” wrote the critic for Time Out. “The actors are so good you’d think they were playing themselves, navigating the tonal and emotional shifts at a hundred miles an hour, taking each one of us along for the ride.”
Writing for RealTime, Keith Gallasch was impressed by “the sheer immediacy of the writing, acting and direction, the physical and emotional palpability of diminished young lives struggling to achieve some kind of wholeness.”
Not too shabby for a first crack at a full-length play.
Ellams says she planned to become an actor rather than as a writer. “Then I entered the real world and had to get a job to feed myself and that didn’t leave me with a lot of time to do acting. But I realised I could hold down a job and still express myself through writing.”
A brief trip to New York lit the fuse. “I saw a really good play and a really bad play,” Ellams says. “The good play inspired me to write and the bad play gave me the confidence to do it.”
The good play was the Neil Patrick Harris reboot of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
And the bad one?
“That will forever remain anonymous,” Ellams says.
As an actor, Ellams had noted the dearth of good material for young female performers. “There was nothing for people like me – millennial girls – and I was struggling to find writing that talked like I did, or spoke about the things I speak about.
“So I decided to write characters that speak like me and interact like me and my sister. A lot of the time I feel it’s older people writing these younger roles. It’s not that they’re so completely off but they’re not really correct either. Sometimes I see young women characters on stage, I feel like the writer is trying too hard and put in a hashtag or a LOL. We don’t actually speak like that.”
Ellams’ young women differ in that they are active as well as truthful, adds Goodwin. “Often when you see young women on stage, stuff just happens to them and they are quite anxious or highly strung. But Christa and Jamie make things happen.
“That was really refreshing to me and it gave me a lot of hope as a performer as well. I’d been going through the same thing as Pippa, looking for material for showreels or auditions and finding it hard to see anything that was right for me at my age coming straight out of university.”
Goodwin and Ellams attended University of Wollongong together where they studied Bachelor of Performance. Both have experience with acting but are now keen to create their own stories for the stage.
The Carousel draws on the playwright’s lived experience. “The relationship and the way the sisters interact is basically me and my younger sister, although the things that happen are sometimes fictional and there is some magical realism,” Ellams says. “But the core of the play is definitely autobiographical – though my sister disagrees.”
Her sister has seen the play, Ellams adds.
“She’s fine with it because she knows exactly what is true and what isn’t. When I wrote a scene, I would get her to read it with me to make sure it flowed so she got glimpses of the whole thing as it was being made. And she gave me a big hug right after she saw the production.”
But Ellams’ parents had some reservations. “They were quite worried about the vulgarity,” she says. “But I was like, no just watch it in context and you will understand.”
The interaction between Christa and Jamie is unusual and powerful because it is “unfiltered” says Goodwin. “The two women are quite explicit in the way they talk about their own bodies and the play is set in their private space, their bedrooms.”
The Carousel was developed with an all-female creative team.
“I didn’t want a male gaze in the rehearsal room,” Goodwin explains. “I really wanted to create a super safe space to really get into the stuff – the things young women don’t feel they are allowed to talk about because there is so much shame around our own bodies and a lack of education around what is normal: puberty, sex, periods … all of the icky stuff, and all these unspoken rules we’re not taught but somehow are expected to know.”
Among the mentors on the project was the award-winning director Anne-Louise Sarks.
“Pippa and Hannah are a brilliant team,” Sarks says. “They are rigorous and generous and brave in their theatre making and because of that their work is bold and powerful and deeply playful. I felt very privileged to be a part of that process.”
As a playwright, Ellams holds nothing back, Sarks adds. “But it’s not about being shocking, it’s truthful and heartfelt and funny. It’s so exciting to see these characters on the stage.”
That truthfulness and raw humour has struck a wide chord – with young women and young men, especially, but also with people for whom adolescence is a distant memory.
“Young women will recognise themselves and everyone else seems to respond to these characters being funny, crazy, sad … just being human. Everyone seems to connect with it because it comes from a true place,” Ellams says. “Plus there are jokes about genitals if that’s your bag. Genital jokes and gross swearing. Parents, bring your teenagers, it might be educational.”
The Carousel plays at Merrigong Theatre Company from March 1-3, as part of its MerrigongX season. It also plays at Kings Cross Theatre, March 30-31, as part of the Step Up Festival.