Rosemary Myers, artistic director of Windmill Theatre Company, is one of Australian theatre’s finest stage directors; she is also one of our most overlooked. There is a trifecta of issues at play: she is a woman, and so less likely to be afforded the print space given to discussing her genius and aesthetics; she works primarily in Adelaide, away from the theatrical centres of Melbourne and Sydney; and she creates work primarily for children and teenagers.
For those familiar with the world of young adult literature, it’s a similar world in theatre: work for young audiences has typically been seen as not as serious or rigorous as work for adults, despite Myers making some of the most serious and rigorous work in the Australian theatre sector. She, like all great directors, considers her audience to be intelligent and engaged, while also pushing herself to explore new models and ways of storytelling.
Myers is now perhaps best known for Girl Asleep, her 2014 play with writer and frequent collaborator Matthew Whittet, adapted for the screen in 2015. Premiering at the 2014 Adelaide Festival, Girl Asleep explored the coming-of-age of a girl thrust into a dark parallel world on her 16th birthday, and was the last in a trilogy by Myers and Whittet about the awkward years of teenagehood – following Fugitive, a retelling of Robin Hood, and School Dance, about a group of geeky boys trying to claim their place. The film – Myers’ feature (and indeed screen) debut – was nominated for seven AACTA awards (winning one, for Jonathon Oxlade’s costume design), and screened at the Berlinale. Off the back of this success, the play was revived at Sydney’s Belvoir in 2016.
Theatre for young audiences [is] seen as not as serious or rigorous as work for adults, despite Myers making some of the most serious and rigorous work in the sector.
Myers’ latest work, Atlantis, which debuted at Belvoir this October, is a departure from much of the work we’ve seen from her to date. Aimed squarely at an adult audience, Atlantis is the latest play from Lally Katz, the closest thing Australian theatre has to a serial memoirist (even as she delves into magical realism, playing in spaces filled with magical bears and dolphins). Katz frequently injects herself, ciphers of herself, or characters from her life into her plays: Neighbourhood Watch highlights the relationship between a young woman and her elderly neighbour; the cast in Return to Earth are directed to speak in hybrid American-Australian accents, like Katz and her family.
Here, Atlantis is a direct sequel to 2013’s Stories I Want To Tell You In Person, which features a woman called Lally Katz trying to figure out how to be a playwright in Australia, while also travelling to New York City to see a psychic about the curse on her vagina, paid through gift cards bought at a Duane Reade pharmacy.
Stories was a one-woman show directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, where Katz took the stage to narrate her own story in an endearingly awkward, funny and self-critical play. Atlantis expands this world: Lally is this time played by Amber McMahon (‘Now obviously, I’m an actress playing Lally,’ McMahon-as-Lally informs us at the top of the show, ‘ but that will actually be better in terms of showing emotional truth,’); Lally’s boyfriend ‘The Full Jew’ in Stories becomes Lally’s ex-boyfriend Dave (a lisping Whittet) in Atlantis. Like Stories before it, Lally travels to New York to try and sort her life out – and to waste money on psychics, under the pretence of it making for a good story. Here, with a cast of five and much doubling of roles, Lally meets an increasingly bizarre group of people in search of a mythical world where everything will work out – Atlantis.
Katz and Myers last worked together at Arena Theatre, another company focused on young audiences, on Criminology (2007), a play for older teenage audiences co-written by Katz with Tom Wright. Teenage audiences have frequently been overlooked as a specific cohort in Australia: they’re often tacked on to works designed for audiences eight and up, or expected to engage with and respond to work made for an adult (and more often than not, specifically Boomer) audience. While Katz has created other work for young audiences alongside her primary focus on work for adults, Myers occupies a niche space in the Australian theatre landscape. Her work at Windmill (which works with a variety of directors catering for audiences from babies through to teenagers) takes two distinct strands: new plays for teenage audiences, and musicals based on classics for older children aged eight and up.
While Myers focuses her direction primarily towards engaging her young audience, adults are always in her sight. Her magical realist-tinged collaborations in this space with Whittet (who also acted in all three works in their trilogy, and the Girl Asleep film) tell stories of Australian teenagehood through a backward lens: Fugitive set in the 90s, School Dance set in the 80s, Girl Asleep in the 70s. This placing of stories outside of our own timeline allows space for both teenage and adult audiences to reflect on the way teenage lives – and fears – are consistent over time. For teenagers, there is a story of a world that knows what you’re going through; for adults there is a story of where you have been.
For teenagers, there is a story of a world that knows what you’re going through; for adults there is a story of where you have been.
While Atlantis sits outside of this trilogy, it is fascinating how closely it follows on from these works. It is different in many ways: a memoir play, by a different playwright, set contemporarily for an adult audience. But Myers’ aesthetic directional considerations of loud characters in ostentatious situations (even as she focuses on the nerdy boys or quiet girls) that were core to the trilogy are also at the forefront here, highlighted by regular collaborators Whittet, McMahon and designer Oxlade.
Katz’s plays, by virtue of working at multiple theatres with multiple directors and designers, often occupy radically different spaces across stories, but at the core of it all is Katz’s wry yet kind skew of the world.
Oxlade’s design – lines and circles in a pastelled and mirrored 80s dollhouse dreamscape – is the first bridge between the work of Myers and Katz. Myers consistently sits her stories in fantastical worlds, even when she is exploring the ‘realism’ part of the ‘magical realism’, and here Katz is immediately placed in a space out-of-kilter with our world, even as the play takes its time to reveal its true magical elements. From Myers’ work, there is a sense always that theatre should be theatrical: that it’s a space of heightened colours and heightened emotions, of us but always outside of us, too.
There is a sense always that theatre should be theatrical: that it’s a space of heightened colours and heightened emotions, of us but always outside of us, too.
Another trademark of Myers’ work, especially with Whittet, has been through pop culture and pop music; tightly curated music soundtracks offset by slightly awkward choreography. This, coupled with the use of bright sets and lighting – particularly a proclivity for quick blackouts or blinders and staging changes – creates scenes of high energy: a chase scene in Fugitive; a display of bullying in School Dance.
I found one of the biggest joys of watching Atlantis in having this background of Myers’ directorial history, when all these aesthetic considerations combined to create a sex scene of increasingly bizarre positions to the annoying repetitive tunes of Vengaboys’ ‘We Like to Party’. Both McMahon and Hazem Shammas (playing a cowboy from Mexico, at a hotel in the middle of the American desert) wear trousers in the scene, and McMahon wears a bra (metallic silver, of course); their thrusting doesn’t always line up.
It’s an exaggerated kama sutra of positions that doesn’t quite make sense, comedy and tragedy rolled into one. Made explicitly for an adult audience, it is nonetheless deeply indebted to Myers’ legacy of creating high-paced pop worlds for teenagers.
Not only does it feel like Katz has given Myers the space to really play with her aesthetic here, it also feels like Myers’ aesthetic is the only space in which Katz’s work could be gifted such a scene. With a ten-year gap in collaboration and radically different audiences, Katz and Myers might not seem like the most typical of pairings. The two women have overwhelmingly different but signature aesthetics: they each create very particular work with strong artistic voices. And yet in Atlantis these two voices meld to create a harmony that is all Katz and all Myers, and something that sits outside of much of Australian theatre.
Atlantis is an imperfect production. It relies perhaps a little too heavily on prior knowledge of the work of Myers and Katz; like Lally in the play, it can often veer off course. It is worth asking, too, what the possible future is for Katz’s work in this memoir space. Unlike books, where people can pick up serial memoirs long after they were published, placing memoir onstage in this transient art form means each production needs to be all things to all people. But, by the same token, no one in Australian theatre has written a body of work like this before – the future that Katz’ work could follow is unmapped. Myers and Whittet took what they learnt in Fugitive and made a trilogy exploring what it means to be a teenager: perhaps Myers is just who Katz needs to make a trilogy exploring what it means to be Katz.
Atlantis was presented by Belvoir St Theatre. Season closed.