Belvoir and Co-Curious breathe new life into Sydney Town Hall with S. Shakthidharan’s play Counting and Cracking this January
With his new play Counting and Cracking, arts practitioner, Founder of CuriousWorks and Artistic Director of Co-Curious, S. Shakthidharan has joined forces with Belvoir’s Artistic Director Eamon Flack to bring Sri Lanka to Sydney Town Hall for Sydney Festival.
Counting and Cracking was made through ongoing collaboration between Belvoir and Co-Curious, and S. Shakthidharan and Eamon Flack – across writing, producing and direction.
What was your inspiration for Counting and Cracking and why did you decide to make it a long-form play?
Growing up in Western Sydney, I knew very little about my homeland – Sri Lanka. My mother didn’t speak about it. My starting point for the journey of writing this play was to learn more about my roots. To learn more about how my family came to Australia.
This purpose shifted as I talked to more Sri Lankans in Sydney and around the world. Through these conversations, a very real, tender, quiet voice began to emerge: a voice of a resilient, multicultural and nuanced people that had been rendered black and white by the politics of division. I pieced together a picture of a community in all its glorious complexity. This was a theatre where many truths would gather in one space. I wanted to tell, through the story of one family, the story of a nation (well, two nations).
To bring this story to life, how did you go about consulting with local communities, and what did you discover?
I listened. I listened for over three years before writing the first draft, throughout the five-year development process and the listening continues today and will keep going until opening night. Once the Sri Lankan – Australian audience experience the work, I may shift a few things again.
I listened to my extended family and a cross-section of the Sri Lankan community. In particular, people who would be labelled publicly as politicians or refugees but who all presented a very human, intensely personal view in private conversation.
What became clear was the loudest voices are often the ones who want to be right. The quieter voices are the ones who will listen, weigh up a range of ideas and options and arrive to a more complex truth. It was those quieter voices that I sought to give power to through this play.
Counting and Cracking will be a large scale theatrical work staged in Sydney Town Hall. Are there any particularly unique challenges presented by the venue?
Sydney Town Hall is a majestic and a very British building – and while this could have posed many challenges, we saw it as an opportunity. We are building a Sri Lankan town hall inside the Sydney Town Hall – building a grassroots, Sri Lankan gathering space that holds the audience as well as the actors in its embrace. We are upending whilst inhabiting this symbol of colonial Australia. It is a very special set design. Just walking into it will be an experience.
How did you go about your global search for the large cast your production calls for?
It was not a traditional Western process with agents and showreels. As befits the deep community arts and cultural development (CACD) experience of Co-Curious and CuriousWorks, casting was very much a process of talking to various communities. The Sri Lankan community, the migrant Australian arts community, actors and small theatre companies across Asia, and all their networks.
It took four years to get this ensemble together through hundreds of auditions – in person and on Skype – and many chats on WhatsApp, email and Messenger. We found a cast of 16 from Australia, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, New Zealand and France who can speak the necessary languages, but also believed in the spirit of the play.
What do you hope audiences will gain from seeing Counting and Cracking?
I hope audiences will be able to experience an Australian story quite unlike anything they’ve ever experienced before. I hope that from the start, as they dine on a Sri Lankan meal, and then enter a Sri Lankan town hall, they feel ready to put down any pre-conceived notions of what Australian theatre is, and instead surrender to a new form of storytelling, a new kind of theatre.
Counting and Cracking will run from 11 January – 2 February 2019 as part of Sydney Festival 2019.
Sydney Festival will run from 9-27 January 2019, see www.sydneyfestival.org.au for further information.