Tom Davis is an Australian playwright, whose new play Sherpas, goes into development this month with its first showing on the 16th of June.
Sherpas is Tom’s sixth full play. Two of Tom’s plays have been produced by The Street Theatre, the first being The Chain Bridge in 2015, and the second The Faithful Servant in 2016. Both plays were written with the assistance of The Street’s Hive playwriting program and First Seen performed readings seasons.
Two of Tom’s earlier plays were produced in Melbourne under the direction of Alice Bishop. Last Tango in Brunswick (2000) was a kaleidoscopic work about love, sex and heartbreak. After the War (2002) explored the battles faced by Australian women who, after being nurses in WWI, returned home to become second-class citizens.
Tom has a PhD in political science and worked for a number of years as a lecturer, researcher and consultant in international development and public policy. He currently works for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
TOM SPEAKS TO THE STREET AHEAD OF THE FIRST SHOWING OF SHERPAS.
YOUR WORK, SHERPAS, IS BEING SHOWN AS PART OF THE STREET’S FIRST SEEN 2018 PROGRAM. TELL US MORE ABOUT THE GENESIS OF THE IDEA.
It comes from my experience with international aid and foreign affairs. I’m fascinated by the tension between the individual needs, ideas and emotions of those people who represent nation states such as Australia, and the necessarily simple ways in which nation states’ interests are presented and prosecuted. In some ways the nation state is inherently tragic. It takes complex mess of all the individual lives and connections of the people living within its borders and crushes down into a simple set of talking points.
WHAT NARRATIVES ARE YOU EXPLORING?
I’m focusing on what happens to an individual who decides that they can’t live their life fully if they continue to be a representative of a nation state. It follows a “Sous-Sherpa” at a G20 summit (NB in G20 parlance a “Sherpa” is the nation’s chief official who helps get a leader to the summit by doing all the negotiation before the leader flies in for the public events of the G20.) The particular Sous-Sherpa the play follows is making some big choices about her life and the world order she has, up until now, dedicated her life to preserving.
YOU HAVE DESCRIBED SHERPAS AS A PLAY WITH MUSIC. HOW IS THIS DIFFERENT TO A MUSICAL?
While there is singing and dancing, those performances serve the play differently from the way a song does in a musical. They tend to be more ironic, and poking a finger at the sometimes ludicrous public presentation of state identity you see at G20-type events. A song in a musical will normally focus more on the progression of a character – who is usually a different person at the end of the song than they were at the beginning.
WHAT HAVE YOU DISCOVERED IN WRITING A WORK TO BE PERFORMED?
Writing for performance enables you to explore with great nuance the emotional side of issues that, otherwise, could be the subject of a PhD thesis. The tension between the individual and the state has been the subject of innumerable political philosophy papers. However, a play provides a way into the rich lives, and hard choices, of the people for whom this philosophical debate is a lived reality. And it offers the possibility of a joyful night of engagement with your fellow human beings in the theatre!
TALK US THROUGH THE PROCESS FOR YOU OF WORKING WITH A DIRECTOR, DRAMATURG AND PERFORMERS.
Writing for the theatre is necessarily collaborative. Leave your ego at the door! Having a director, actors and a dramaturg at the ready is an enormous privilege because it enables the writer to see right away what works, what doesn’t, what’s too slow, what’s too fast, what should have never been written etc.
YOUR LEAD CHARACTER, GEORGIA, IS AN AUSTRALIAN SENIOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS OFFICIAL, DRINKS TOO MUCH, FALLS IN AND OUT OF LOVE, HAS A BREAKDOWN, SINGS 99 LUFTBALLOONS A LOT, AND TRIES TO DESTROY THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE GLOBAL ECONOMIC ORDER. WHAT CAN AUDIENCES EXPECT OF HER JOURNEY IN THE PLAY?
Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy night. But also a funny one. Farce is tragedy speeded up, and there is a lot that, from one angle, could be seen as tragic in Georgia’s situation. But she’s fighting like mad to find a way through to the other side of all the choices she has to make. Audiences are going to have a good time, but they will also walk away thinking deeply about this crazy modern construction we call the nation state.
WHAT DOES THE FIRST SEEN PROGRAM OFFER A WRITER LIKE YOU?
It gets me away from the desk and onto the floor. It also offers a chance, relatively early in the development of a work, to see what an audience makes of this creature you’re piecing together. The audience test is the best check a writer has of whether or not the creature will live.
WHAT ARE YOUR GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR WRITING A NEW WORK FOR THEATRE?
Don’t be boring. Don’t be stupid. Help the audience find a way into a work. Once they’re in, let them go where they want.
WHAT KIND OF THEATRE DO YOU WANT TO MAKE?
I love the written word, but also believe it needs to be married to movement, music and all the other elements of theatre in order to engage audiences most intently. I love creating complex works that require a lot from the performers, but also give them and the audience a lot in return.
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
The Street’s Diary of a Madman certainly got my creative juices flowing. A wonderful production of a fascinating exploration of one man’ break-down. Plus PJ Williams’ performance was a timely reminder of why we go to theatre.
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
I’ve only just started watching it, but Babylon Berlin on Netflix looks like a pretty good bet. Weimer Germany will always get my attention.