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Interview: ‘‘What We Saw in the Sorghum Fields’

THAT Production Company has partnered with up-and-coming playwright Tremayne Gordon to produce his new Australian work, ‘What We Saw in the Sorghum Fields’, with director Tim Wynn at the helm. 

Bradley ChapmanBradley Chapman (left) was lucky enough to sit down with Tremayne, an impassioned writer who already has an impressive list of credits and accolades to his name, to discuss his process and what audiences can expect from this brand new piece of Australian Theatre.

‘What We Saw in the Sorghum Fields’

So tell me where in your playwriting journey this play falls?

I started writing short plays in university and staged those, but this one came about through a mentorship with the Australian Theatre for Young People. It started as a short play but then I decided that I’d written enough of those and I wanted to develop something full length. So I took this one before it was produced and started developing it. It’s the first short play I’ve written that I’ve seen this potential in.

You say it began life as a short play. What was the point of realisation that you wanted it to be more?

At the end of the mentorship there was a staged reading of all the works that were written over that year. And when I heard the actors’ voices start to put that weight behind it I began to think there was too much there for it to just be a 30-minute story. I’d tried to write a full length play in half an hour.

‘What We Saw in the Sorghum Fields’
Indigo Macrokanis, Ella Macrokanis and Chris Patrick Hansen during rehearsal

How connected is this new piece, stylistically or thematically, to those short plays?

A playwright named Tom Holloway once said it that it takes a writer about seven years to find their voice, and I’ve been writing plays now for seven years so maybe this is it! I think the way that I write, hopefully, is becoming distinctly me. The imagery and poetry I hope is something I can continue because I really like it. 

I’ve kind of grown up with this play in a way, but it took an artist friend of mine to tell me I should attempt this full-length one. It kind of feels like I’ve gone through puberty as a playwright!

This play is a little darker than I thought – I’m still figuring this all out. This process has made me think about the stories I’ve told before and how important it is to develop the world of the play. This certainly has more of that than I’ve written before. But I think in the future I want to go in a completely different direction again. A different tempo, a different mood. And that means that I won’t be creating this same world again, so I have had to make sure it is as fleshed out here as I want it to be.

Is this a true story?

The work is all about mythology. We want it to feel like it’s telling a story that could be true, but it is definitely entirely fictional.

Then where did the idea for this come from?

Through the development of the mentorship programme, we were required to pick a place from the state we were from – the programme is national – and so for me my state was obviously Queensland. 

My grandfather was a sorghum farmer, he used to grow sorghum, so I had in my head this idea of the sorghum field and it felt like an interesting place to tell a story. And within that idea in my head I had this image of a young girl leaning against a broken down car and just sort of staring into these fields – and something staring back. Something about that seemed worth exploring.

‘What We Saw in the Sorghum Fields’
Indigo Macrokanis and Chris Patrick Hansen during rehearsal

So you’ve drawn inspiration from people and places in your own history, what about other plays? Tell me about three plays that have inspired you as a writer.

Definitely ‘Blackrock’ by Nick Enright. Growing up near a beach in Australia, and coming from a small town, that is one that I’ll always remember. 

‘Samson’ by Julia-Rose Lewis. The plays I take inspiration from tend to be coming-of-age stories. That one I saw in 2015 and still find myself often referencing it and referring to it in conversation. Maybe in some ways it redefined how I saw plays. I’ve seen so many since then but I still find myself coming back to that one. 

And my third has to be ‘Boy Girl Wall’ by Matthew Ryan and Lucas Stibbard. I remember I saw it in high school and up until then I hadn’t realised theatre could be that cool. It was so funny and so current and so relevant and so topical. It was the play that made me realise that theatre was something I could do.

You say you thought theatre was something you could do. At that stage was writing for theatre on the cards or were you approaching it from somewhere else?

I wanted to be an actor, actually. Really badly. I think why that show was so impactful was that Lucas had that writing credit on it, it made me think that although I wanted to be an actor I didn’t want to be limited to the roles I was fortunate enough to be cast in. I didn’t want to sit around and wait for great roles. So I decided to write the roles that I wanted to play and the stories I wanted to be involved in.

So with solely the writer’s hat on this time, have you been present in the rehearsal room?

I’ve been into a couple of rehearsals to ensure that the script is developing the way that I want. Tim, the director, is really great at letting the script breathe and develop in its own way. As it’s a brand new work, I think that’s a wise decision.

Really, I’ve just wanted to make sure that the actors feel that their characters are saying what they need to say. As someone who’s 24, what I think is important for them to say is not actually what is. So I want those opinions, and I want to hear them say “I don’t think my character would really say this” just to make sure that it’s really authentic.

It’s been nice actually to not be as involved in this outside of being a playwright as I usually am. There’s something nice about just being in the room as a writer.

Playwright Tremayne Gordon

Speaking of the actors, are they realising the characters in the way you intended?

I think that Chris brings a side to the character of Charlie that I never really saw when I was writing it. He brings something that’s vulnerable and endearing but at the same time quite charismatic which I hadn’t realised was buried in that character. It’s also very interesting to see how the other actors and characters have responded to that choice.

Indigo brings a real spirit to her role. I always thought it was a character with a lot of heart but she brings a power and a fieriness and it’s really great to see a young character having that spirit. Ella, on the other hand, brings a real warmth and tenderness to her role as Hannah. 

I think that all three of them are so intuitive. They’ve managed to bring these dimensions to the characters that I wasn’t conscious of. It’s blown me away at times, actually, watching them figure things out.

The poster for this show has a real 1980s sci-fi feel to it. Does that feeling carry through the text?

It was definitely a conscious decision to set the play in the ‘80s and tap into whatever was happening at the time that influenced those bold images for films, that aesthetic of ‘80s cinema. Tim and I both knew we had to embrace that ‘80s vibe; the temptation was too much to have all of that. It was very early on that we knew it was the direction we had to go in.

Do you have a particular penchant for those kinds of films?

I do. Something about them, that whole era. Arcade machines, the drive-in, the cars, that whole aesthetic. I’d love to be in one of those ‘80s films, with one of those cool jackets! Maybe deep down that’s how I see myself every day.

What are you hoping that audiences take away from this production?

A sense of hope. With everything that’s going on in the world for young people at the moment, the impact they have and that need to determine their futures, I want it to be about hope. You know, even when the odds are stacked against you, if you have hope you still have a shot. When you’re young, you feel very intensely and it’s so easy to get disheartened. Just the hope that it will all make sense eventually is, to me, so important for young people to hold onto. 

I see that not just in the final production, but throughout the rehearsal process. I’m even inspired in the rehearsal room. Tim, for example, has so much composure but is also so able to let that down and have fun and just that sort of attitude gives me hope. And I hope that reads in the final staging.

‘What We Saw in the Sorghum Fields’
Indigo Macrokanis, Ella Macrokanis and Chris Patrick Hansen during rehearsal

Tell me about how that partnership with Tim came about.

Timothy Wynn director

I had this play but I’m not a director. I knew of Tim and the work that he had done and I was keen to branch out and work with new people. And it has been great. 

I pitched it to him in a bar, actually. I sat down and I said “will you direct my play?” I told him some brief details and he was interested, and so I got three of my friends who are actors to do a play reading for him and after that night he was happy to sign on. 

I didn’t realise that when I pitched it to him that day that it would eventuate into this. With all the marketing and how much work he has put into it. I think it’s one thing to say that you’re interested and then another to be at this point. I have to stop myself from being like “I’m so grateful for all that you’ve done!” every time we talk about the play. 

I’d be interested to hear what he’d have to say about how I pitched it to him, actually! In my head I think we just sat down for a drink, he might tell it like “this really wired artist cornered me and wouldn’t let me leave ’til I agreed to direct it”.

So if not a director yourself, how much did you see the staging of the play in your mind’s eye as you were writing it? Does the final product reflect that vision?

Tim is so visual. There are really beautiful moments that we’ve talked about where Tim has seen it in a way that I never did. I saw it all internally, I guess, seeing the characters thoughts and feelings and really seeing things from their perspectives more than anything else. But then Tim has said “you’re seeing it inside their heads, but this is what we’re seeing”. So seeing it from a director’s point of view I’m coming to appreciate the physicality of the impacts of those thoughts and feelings. What’s happening externally. Because that’s what the audience gets.

I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by things that I didn’t necessarily consider big moments in the script. It’s a credit to Tim, really, that he can sift through and find those moments.

Well, you had to write them in first!

Yeah, I shouldn’t sell myself short here!

So this is being staged at the Ron Hurley Theatre. Do you think that vision will change again when you move from the rehearsal room to that space?

At the moment the rehearsal space is quite intimate. It’s all very confined and I wonder what might happen when we put it into a theatre because so much of the play is about isolation and abandonment. I think it will be really interesting to watch because I think that a play doesn’t come alive until you see it within that space and see other people watching it.

But on the flip side of that, when I sit in an audience of one of my shows I tend to overanalyse all their reactions and can pretty much gnaw off all of my fingernails! So maybe it’s better if I don’t watch it after all.

What are the plans for the play after this?

We’d love to bring it to other venues around South-East Queensland. It’s a story we want to share with as many people as possible.

‘What We Saw in the Sorghum Fields’ runs from 7 February to 8 February 2020 at the Ron Hurley Theatre for only 3 performances. Tickets are available from www.thatproductioncompany.com.au

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