Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Shaelee Rooke: The Dark Room

By | Published on Thursday 9 November 2017

You might already have heard of Paperbark Theatre – a company devoted to the staging of Australian plays – because of their previous, very successful production of ‘This Is Where We Live’. And if you saw that, you’ll be pleased to hear that their latest venture, the UK premiere of Angela Betzien’s ‘The Dark Room’ is on at Theatre503 this month.
To find out more about the play, and the company, I spoke to producer Shaelee Rooke.

CM: Firstly, can you tell us about the play? What’s it about, and where does the story take us?
SR: The Dark Room is an award winning psychological thriller from Australian playwright Angela Betzien. It’s essentially six fascinating, damaged characters in three intertwining stories that play out in one motel room, in the middle of the Northern Territory, across the space of a year.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
SR: The play tackles some big issues including deaths in custody, domestic violence, social welfare, and ultimately, social breakdown. While it’s set in what may be an unfamiliar, almost alien space to many Londoners, the themes and issues address are timely and universal. I think audiences here will find it eerily familiar and enlightening – the issues addressed in this play barely make the news in Australia, let alone international headlines.

CM: It sounds like it touches on some fairly serious issues – do you think staging plays that do that can help to raise awareness of social problems?
SR: Absolutely. If I had a penny for every time someone has said to me, “Oh I had no idea this sort of stuff was happening in Australia”, I’d have some serious funding for Paperbark! Theatre is a terrific platform to raise awareness about social problems for it creates an environment of shared humanity. But this kind of theatre must be handled with care. In many ways, the heavier the themes, the defter the playwright needs to be. In this way, Angela Betzien is truly masterful.

CM: How did you find the play, and what made you want to stage it?
SR: The play found me actually! I was the resident assistant producer at Theatre503 last year when director Audrey Sheffield pitched the piece to be part of the season. Audrey had spent some time working with Angela when she was on attachment at the National Theatre and they’d both discussed how great a venue Theatre503 would be for ‘The Dark Room’.

I was familiar with Angela’s work and jumped at the opportunity to bring this stunning piece to London. The play is a real page turner – immense in theme but handled with a lightness and spark. I knew it would resonate here in the UK, and perfectly fit Paperbark’s mission – to champion the best new Australian plays to international audiences. It was a no brainer!

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the playwright?
SR: Angela is a multi-award winning Australian playwright, whose work is produced pretty widely and consistently around Australia. She describes the work she makes as ‘living newspaper theatre’, theatre that tells the real stories behind the six o’clock news. She is a courageous writer; her work is dangerous and dark, and will take audiences on one hell of a ride.

Our production of ‘The Dark Room’ at Theatre503 will be her UK premiere.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast?
SR: This is a real ensemble-piece, so we’re incredibly lucky to have such a talented and hard working cast. Katy Brittain (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Apollo Theatre) plays Anni, a care worker, opposite Annabel Smith’s (The Last Ones, Jermyn Street Theatre) provocative and damaged Grace. Then we have Tamlyn Henderson (Ladies in Black, Queensland Theatre) as a previously whistle-blowing cop now sitting on a secret he won’t quite share with his pregnant wife, Emma played by Fiona Skinner (Taboo, BBC One). Finally we have Alasdair Craig (War Horse, National Theatre) the sinisterly charming police sergeant Craig, who has a mysterious connection to local teen Joseph, played by Paul Adeyefa (Henry VI, Union Theatre).

CM: Paperbark Theatre is only a few years old, isn’t it? Can you tell us who runs it and how it came together?
SR: Paperbark Theatre Company was formed in 2013 by myself and Oliver de Rohan and we run it together. We are both Australian actors and theatre makers, passionate about new Australian writing. I am a huge fan of the Griffin Theatre in Sydney who produce new Australian work, exclusively. There are so many brilliant Australian writers, and yet very few of their pieces make it over here. We wanted to change this.

Once we were up and running, people poked fun at our ‘Australian theatre company’. Many remarked how they’d never read an Australian play or seen any Australian theatre. But why? We have a rich and vibrant culture in Australia. Theatre, in essence, is about sharing stories, experiences, history. It is a way of connecting with people – no matter where you’re from. As Australians, we wanted to create a means of celebrating our culture in this way.

So, we developed a mission to stage new Australian writing to international audiences. It’s ambitious, we know, but our debut production of Vivienne Walshe’s ‘This is Where We Live’, proved to be hugely successful and set the wheels in motion. We received critical acclaim at both the Edinburgh and New York International Fringe Festivals, winning Best Overall Play at the New York Fringe.

CM: What aims do you have for the company, for the future?
SR: The scarcity of Australian work here seems to be slowly changing, with recent tours of ‘Things I Know to be True’ as well as the success of directors like Simon Stone and Benedict Andrews in the UK theatre scene. We’re hoping that we can continue to be part of that movement and encourage local audiences to interact with Australian work. Additionally, we’d love to develop our base and connections here and in New York to provide opportunities for playwrights to show their work internationally, broadening the scope for an exchange of ideas across our continents.

CM: What do you have coming up next, in the short term?
SR: We’re working on a triptych of shows being written and produced in-house, which will be suitable for touring. We can’t say too much yet, but the first of them should be on late 2018. Additionally, we’re in discussion with several playwrights about opportunities for staging their works and are always looking to connect with more Australian artists in London or back home. For now, we’re thrilled to be able to present ‘The Dark Room’ and are looking forward to connecting with audiences over this stunning play.

‘The Dark Room’ is on at Theatre503 from 9 Nov-2 Dec. See this page here for all the details and to book.

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