Recent stories told in newspapers, documentaries and a TV drama series about the three-decade spate of homophobic hate crimes that blighted New South Wales, shocked most and brought back painful memories for many.
The LGBTQI community has long endured violence but the 1970s, 80s and 90s were particularly dangerous times for gay men in Sydney. Brutal assaults, many perpetrated by gangs of youths, were common in the city’s beachside parks and reserves.
It is now believed that many of more than 80 deaths or disappearances originally ruled suicide or death-by-misadventure in NSW Police investigations of the time, were murders. The perpetrators of some of those crimes are, presumably, still at large, living – or trying to live – ordinary lives.
“I thought about all of the people behind those cases and all of the men who had become victim to these gangs and the homophobia and hatred and I felt really compelled to write a piece of theatre about it,” says Lachlan Philpott, whose new play, Lost Boys, is about to have its premiere at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre.
“I had a friend who went missing in the 1990s,” he adds. “I realise now it could have happened to any of us.”
One of the things Philpott found confronting in his research was that many of the attackers were teenagers. Some were school-aged kids. These people would now be in their 40s and 50s. Some will be parents themselves.
“How do they live with it?” asks Philpott. “In Australia, it’s a question that we face on a number of different levels in different contexts. How do we resolve guilt? How do we continue to live and flourish when there are things in our past so atrocious and shameful?”
Lost Boys is focused on the fictitious Murphy family; parents Cy and Jill, who met as teenagers themselves in the 1980s, and their teenaged sons. The first act of the play is set in 1989, the second in 2017.
“I felt that the second act had to be in 2017 because I wanted to record that period of history around the marriage plebiscite and look at the amount of hurt and damage that campaign resulted in,” Philpott says.
“There is a huge assumption that with the ‘Yes’ vote coming in, that everything is OK. But a lot of really ugly stuff was brought up and we have to acknowledge that a large percent of our population voted ‘No’. That still weighs on my mind heavily.”
Lost Boys is directed by Merrigong Theatre Company’s Leland Kean, who brings personal insight to the production.
“I grew up on the Northern Beaches in the 1980s and that surf and beach culture is very much part of my makeup,” Kean says. “It was one of the things that attracted me to the play. I grew up with boys like these.”
Coastal living has changed a great deal in the intervening decades, Kean believes. We’ve forgotten what it was like.
“I lived in Dee Why when there were lots of single parents and Housing Commission families. Now it’s a completely different place. Money has changed everything along the coast and I think the stories of those crimes are being lost as the coast has gentrified.”
There is a particular resonance in Lost Boys for Wollongong audiences, too, Kean adds. Ross Warren, a WIN television newsreader, disappeared in 1989, aged 25. His car keys were found on the cliffs near Marks Park, Tamarama. His body was never found.
“It was well-known in Wollongong that Ross was a gay man,” Kean says. “If you were a kid in the playground being teased for being gay back then, you were called ‘Ross’. There is a real connection to that story locally and personally.”
Kean has brought the worlds of beach and theatre together for Lost Boys. He’s been rehearsing with his cast on the sand at Puckey’s Beach, north of Wollongong.
“It’s amazing,” Kean says. “On the beach you are confronted with the wind and the noise and it demands something from an actor you can’t get in a rehearsal room. It shows where you need to pitch your performance and you get a sense of what the reality is in this environment. This is new ground for me, I’ve never worked like this before.”
Acting to the wind and waves was a great experience says Jane Phegan, who plays Jill Murphy, a married mother of two who took part in homophobic violence in her teenage years.
“It was great to be in that expanse,” she says. “The landscape is such a big part of who these people think they are. And it was lovely to deal with the elements and shout over them.”
For actor Ben Pfeiffer, who plays Jill’s husband Cy, Lost Boys is something of a homecoming.
“I was born in Wollongong and grew up here. But I’ve been living in Melbourne for 14 years,” he says. “This is my first time on stage in the Illawarra in about 20 years. Growing up as a young queer kid feeling like I could never be my true self in this place, moving away, finding my identity, and then coming back here to work on this project has been kind of amazing.”
The role of Cy is challenging one on a number of levels, says Pfeiffer.
“He is the antithesis of everything I am. It’s a physical, vocal, emotional and psychological transformation, equal parts terrifying and exciting.”
And it’s confronting for a gay man to enter into the mind of a homophobe, he adds. “I’ve been trying to find parallels between him and me. You don’t want to see someone on stage acting like a bad guy. As an actor you have to tap into what your character believes is right and wrong. I don’t agree with his convictions but I understand the concept of conviction and the potency and power of that.”
Pfeiffer hopes the audience will experience conflicted feelings.
“It would be easy to dismiss my character if he was just dark and murderous but when you meet him, he is a family man. That he’s so relatable and normal makes him even more terrifying.”
Merrigong’s decision to produce Lost Boys is a brave one, Philpott says. “It is a pretty confronting work and very relevant to Wollongong. But it speaks to all of Australia really because we are a nation that lives on the coast and is obsessed with beach and surf culture. But with that comes homophobia and a culture of masculinity that promotes violence and unpleasant attitudes.”
Philpott hopes Lost Boys will at the very least make people talk. “I want audiences to think about what they’ve seen and talk about what is it that makes people homophobic, though I know it’s a question a play can’t really answer.
“One play can’t memorialise the men whose lives were lost due to the mindless thuggery and violence of others. But it can make people examine their own attitudes. A lot of people are complicit because they were silent and nobody ever spoke up. That seems to be a pattern in our history and it needs to change.”
Lost Boys plays from May 23 at IPAC, Wollongong