For decades now, the ABC’s Play School has introduced the concept of story to generations of Australian kids by placing them in the hands of gifted storytellers.
John Waters, Georgie Parker, Brooke Satchwell, Jay Laga’aia, Rhys Muldoon and Justine Clarke have all entranced the under-5s (and quite a few grown-ups) with their storytelling skills.
Actor and playwright Rachael Coopes joined Big Ted, Jemima and Humpty in 2011 and is now one of the beloved regular faces of program. But she’s also a storyteller in her own right – and not just for kids.
Coopes got her start as a sketch comedy writer for SBS’s Life Support in 2001 and devised an adaptation of The Decameron staged at the Old Fitzroy.
Her first play, Art House, was subsequently staged at Old Red Lion in London and her Australian Theatre for Young People-produced drama Sugarland, set in the Northern Territory town of Katherine, was a critical and audience hit that went on to play the Darwin Festival and collect a Sydney Theatre Award and a Helpmann.
She’s also well known as an actor from her work in TV series including Home and Away, McLeod’s Daughters and All Saints.
Coopes’ new play, The Climbing Tree, a collaborative project between ATYP and the Bathurst Memorial Arts Centre, examines the challenges faced by teenagers in regional towns.
Coopes prefers to immerse herself in a place before she writes a story.
“When I arrived in Bathurst, I had no idea what the story would be,” Coopes says.
“But from my very first trip I felt that Bathurst was like some kind of ghost town. It was the first settlement outside of Sydney, the history is just sitting there on the surface and you can’t ignore it. There are hundreds of original houses still standing. And Ribbon Gang Lane, this little laneway I walked down, I later found out that members of the Ribbon Gang [notorious bushrangers] were hanged right there.
“I could feel presence from the past in a visceral way and I wanted to integrate stories of young people from the past and show how it’s relevant to young people today.”
Rather than revisit the past, however, Coopes sets her play in the present. The focus of her story is Rayleen, a 15-year-old living in Bathurst, and her struggles to make her way in the world.
“It’s about how the past keeps circling around you and how it’s ever present in where she’s at now,” Coopes says. “Rayleen has a last chance to finish a year at school but she has huge responsibilities at home and very trying family circumstances that are getting in the way of her creating a future for herself.”
It’s an important story to tell now, Coopes adds. “I believe young people, more than ever before, are very pessimistic about what the future holds for them and for the world in general. You have kids like Rayleen, who face extraordinary challenges just to get to school and fight really hard to get results for a future that you think, potentially, they’re not going to have, anyway.”
But The Climbing Tree isn’t all doom and gloom Coopes stresses. “It’s also a story about friendship and how friends really do have the potential to change your life in many ways – more than family does sometimes. So often, parents don’t get it, they don’t fully understand where their kids are at.”
Regional stories aren’t told as much as they should be, Coopes believes. “When you actually go into regional Australia, one of the first things you see is the level of engagement from young people, their enthusiasm for sharing their stories. They are so excited when they realise their voice is going to be heard and I think it’s critical for storytellers to embrace that.”
City audiences embrace these stories, too, Coopes says. “Each regional town has a really specific flavour and the world these people inhabit can feel completely foreign and new to city kids. And there is nowhere like Bathurst. It feels like a piece of history that has been held on to so carefully on the other side of the mountains.”
Coopes’ affinity for regional stories runs deep.
Her early childhood was spent in Canberra, until, aged five she moved to Sydney. At 11, she went to boarding school.
“I went to my friends’ places during the school holidays in Brewarrina, Coonamble and Dubbo. All of my formative school holidays were on properties and my stepfather and my mum run cattle in the Southern Highlands. I do have a bit of a love affair with regional Australia and the country but I’m a proper city girl, too.”
Being a “proper city girl” allows her to go into a regional town with wide eyes, Coopes adds. “I can observe things you can’t see when you are embedded in a community: the idiosyncrasies, the mentality and small town politics you don’t experience in a place like Sydney.”
Writing suits her lifestyle more than acting right now, Coopes says. When she isn’t working on Play School, she’s teaches yoga and yoga philosophy. “I like to use storytelling to unpack some of the big life questions that we have,” she says.
“I’m a single mum with a five-year-old and acting hours don’t really work for us right now. But I love writing and it works well with our life. I love the challenge in getting to the heart of a story: How to sort through all that cerebral stuff and get into the heart and the playfulness.”
The Climbing Tree plays Riverside Theatres, November 22-24