Reviewed by Lucy Lucas
This is the second time I’ve had the privilege of enjoying Black Apple Theatre’s Thrive. I first saw the show as a staged reading about two years ago at Bendigo Pride, when it was still in its workshopping phase. I left feeling elated and full to the brim with a sense of belonging and joy at the beauty and strength of the queer community. This time the production is part of Naarm’s queer arts festival Midsumma and, I’m excited to say, satisfies in exactly the same way.
Thrive is a verbatim theatre piece, meaning its script is developed from real interviews, in this case with queer people from regional locations around western Victoria. We see video snippets of the interviewees, a facet of the original reading I was stoked to see included in this version, from which their live actor counterparts pick up the telling of each story.
Creator Cheyney Caddy has created an excellently structured script that masterfully and cohesively weaves together six unique and independent stories. Their insightful editing highlights relevant themes without forcing meaning or sacrificing flow. It’s a slightly bleak indictment of our current cost of living crisis that the biggest audience reaction all night comes in response to a line that one character purchased his three-bedroom home for sixteen thousand dollars, though this is definitely not a result of a bland script. At all turns Caddy’s script is jam packed with humour, intellect and humanity.
At first, I couldn’t put my finger on why this particular exploration of a range of queer experiences felt so novel and exquisitely told. The play manages to canvas all the usual suspects in terms of queer pain; bigotry, familial disconnection, the AIDS crisis and mental illness without ever defining any of its characters by their trauma. Their humanity and individuality always lead, with these horrific realities sitting alongside experiences of joy, love, curiosity and growth. It was only in talking to friends the next day that I realised it must simply be that the stories are being told, held and presented all by queer people. It is a subtle difference but an important one; when we are able to tell our own stories they become defined by the kaleidoscope of human experience, of which being queer (particularly the social realities of living as a queer person) is a single, important facet but not the entirety of our identity.
Going into Thrive I didn’t expect it to be particularly shocking or radical, more-so soulful and sweet. But whilst the stories are simple and human rather than epic it was my mistake to forget how rare and relevant this type of storytelling still is. I forgot how little we, even now and even in spaces specifically designed to share queer stories, hear from elder queer voices and from regional queer voices. It remains a radical act of pride, power and self-determination to put stories like these front and centre. I underestimated how much this would move and inspire me. Thrive is the reminder of the power of our existence, that queer people have always endured and will continue to do so, with the strength of our community at the centre of our success.
The cast is sublime, their considered and simple character work never overpowering the story but ensuring a tight link with the individual they are portraying. Aspen Beilharz brings a beautiful, ethereal calm to her portrayal of powerhouse Julie Peters, a woman whose incredible life deserves an entire play of its own. Connor Dariol, in his portrayal of Max Primmer, has a twinkly, cheeky energy that punctures and reinvigorates the space each time he speaks. To the voice of Kaye Powell, a teacher and the ethical heart of the group, Issy Weiskopf brings a joyful radiance that balances beautifully with the harsher realities underlying many of Powell’s anecdotes. Initially I thought that the decision to have younger actors playing older queer people slightly reinforced the ongoing invisibility of queer elders in our art and media, however on reflection I think that this issue is far outweighed by the beautiful inter-generational connection it created between young and old (plus the inclusion of videos meant the original subjects of the work do not entirely hand over their stories to the actors). As the two younger characters in the cast Clare Morgan and Daisy Webb’s arcs are very different, their characters speaking more to their current experiences and struggles than to their overarching life journeys. Morgan has a lovely, inviting openness on stage and portrays both Cheyenne Cadence and Frankie with heartbreaking vulnerability. We get the sense that of all the characters theirs might be the one least at peace, making us yearn all the more for connections to be made between these young queer people and their elders. Webb’s portrayal of Cobie Farmer is infused with a refreshing stability and honesty, her down-to-earth nature belying a wisdom beyond her years. I was overwhelmed with the talent on display in Thrive, each of these excellent actors could easily helm their own show and their work makes me excited for the future of Australian theatre.
Gus Powers set design evokes a late twentieth century rural Australia that is both incredibly specific and universal. The space is backyard, loungeroom and street all at once. It is filled with teacups and succulents, hanging washing and corrugated iron. It reflects the snippets of setting we glimpse in the projected interview videos and for anyone who has spent time in regional Victoria it is deeply familiar.
The repeated ritual of sharing a ‘cuppa’ becomes beautifully and subtly incorporated, almost developing into choreography over the course of the performance. The actors gently interact with their surroundings in the way a person being interviewed might, preventing the show from become just talking heads. I do feel that there remains room for the actors to interact with each other more, as their connection on stage felt impersonal and lacked intimacy in comparison to the intense relationship they developed with the audience. Their confident and simple use of body percussion to create rhythmic scene transitions felt unforced and broke up the play’s sections nicely. There were some repeated non-naturalistic movement sequences however that fell flat for me in comparison to the surety and clarity of the rest of the performance elements. The performers all embodied these motions with grace, but the movement components felt disconnected and underdeveloped, their symbolism lost on me – perhaps a collaboration with a movement specialist for the next stage of development could strengthen this.
In terms of future development, I believe the show would benefit from further editing as it is currently over 100 minutes long and develops a slight repetitiveness with some of the latter long pauses dragging a little. Additionally, it would be fantastic to add greater diversity by including CALD queer people and disabled queer people, though Caddy does provide a disclaimer at the beginning of the show that this is her intention – I truly hope they get the support required (looking at you regional arts funding bodies) to realise this vision. I can see Thrive evolving into something more; maybe a yearly event at which new stories are performed each year, or a touring show that interviews queer locals and performs their stories back to them with a shorter turn-around period. However it develops I’m sure it will continue to go from strength to strength.
Thrive is an example of truly dedicated storytelling, one that revels in the wonderful diversity of the queer experience and leaves its audiences lighter and more connected than when they walked in.
Image Credit: Ally Richards