The Appleton Ladies' Potato Race at The Ensemble Theatre
This March, the Ensemble Theatre brings a new Australian comedy, featuring a cast of five fabulous women. The Appleton Ladies' Potato Race is a funny, honest and heart-warming story about upsetting the potato cart and standing up for your principles. Ahead of the show Carly spoke with playwright Melanie Tait about what inspired her to write this play, her creative process and the importance of showcasing women's stories. Have a read of the full interview below:
What inspired you to write this new Australian comedy and what can you tell us about the plot? Why is it a show that Sydney audiences definitely should not miss this year?
Priscilla and I have been looking to do a project together for a really long time and we’d often talk through ideas with each other.
I had just gone through a pretty harrowing experience fundraising to make the potato race prize money equal in my home town, Robertson, when Cill called asking me if I had any ideas that might suit Ensemble Theatre (a theatre and space I LOVE).
Immediately it occurred to me that I had to write this play for Ensemble. Really, I’d been wanting to write it my whole life without realising it. I’ve felt a tension my whole life between the life I have in rural Australia vs the life I have in the city. It felt like a brilliant space to explore that.
Sydney audiences will love this show, I hope, because we all have some sort of link to rural Australia – we grew up there, or visited there, or escaped from there, or have a partner or friend from there. And, we’ve all experienced that tension between the generations when we want to change something and others would rather we leave it as it is!
We are really excited to see that the show features 5 fabulous women in a show written by and also directed by women. The play also raises the issue of the lack of gender parity and the need for women to assert themselves on this. Can you talk a bit about why this is so important and how central works like this are at the moment to the advancement of women in our industry in Australia. And also then just to the female narrative at the moment as well.
I’m excited to be addressing the gender imbalance with this work – and I hope, given that it’s already doing really well at the box office, that we’ll see more theatres doing works focused on women’s stories.
It’s interesting to me that Van Badham’s work at STC Banging Denmark is sold out, and this work is nearly sold out. It shows me that people are hungry for women’s stories.
Van and I have both been around for a while, and enjoyed big successes in the UK – I’m glad that a generational change in the artistic directors of Australian theatres means writers like us are being programmed on mainstages.
When you sit down to start a new work, what is the process and to what extent are you influenced by things, situations and people around you? What is your process in bringing your thoughts to the stage?
I’m a journalist, so I respond incredibly well to deadlines. With this play, Ensemble Theatre and I negotiated a series of deadlines that have forced me into making decisions about this play.
The process for me is around two things: who are the characters and what are we reaching for when the play ends? So, I spend a lot of time figuring out who the characters are, why they want what they want, and how we get them to the final scene.
Priscilla and I have worked very closely together on this play. I’ve been getting her feedback since the first scenes I wrote and that continues – until this morning (!) where we spent 15 minutes discussing some changes I’d made for rehearsals.
As a writer, what is your involvement in the production of your works? Do you like to be involved at all through the rehearsal process or work with the director, in this case Priscilla Jackman? What are the pros and cons of being part of the creative process of production for you – does it allow you to feel as though your vision is coming to fruition or does it stifle your ability to move to the next story if you continue to see the past one through?
I’ve only written one other play, and to begin with I did almost everything! Produced, directed, cast – the works! Which means, there’s not much room for others to give creative feedback. To be fair… I was super young.
About 3 years into the run of my last play, The Vegemite Tales, another director came onto the project, Bill Buckhurst, and I learned the joy of collaboration. I also learned about how important someone else’s feedback is to tighten up the play.
For The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, I don’t imagine I’ll be around for the whole rehearsal, but it will depend on what Priscilla and the actors need. I trust Priscilla completely – as well as being artistic collaborators, we’ve been close friends for nearly twenty years – she’s my sister from another mister! – I know she cares as deeply about this play as I do.
What is the main lesson or concept that you hope audiences take away from this show?
I don’t really want to teach any lessons – I want people to have a great time, and think a bit more about where we’re falling down in terms of gender equity across our society.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
Favourite production you have ever seen?
Merrily We Roll Along, Donmar Warehouse, 2000 (written by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Michael Grandage)
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
Peurto Rico to see Lin Manuel Miranda do Hamilton. Which I think I’ve missed by a week or two!
Plays or musicals?
Musicals! They’re one of the great loves of my life.
What’s next for you after this show?
I’ve got a TV series in development and am writing a new play. Am hoping one or both will come off! ☺
The Appleton Ladies' Potato Race opens at The Ensemble Theatre on March 22. You can get your tickets here.