Newcastle Herald

Grounded in a city's reality

Author: Ken Longworth
Date: 30/04/2012
Words: 808
Source: NCH
          Publication: Newcastle Herald
Section: News
Page: 50
The writer of a new play listened to her Newcastle cast, writes Ken Longworth.

OLD attitudes die hard. That is something that teenager Farrah, a Newcastle girl who wants a seagoing career, learns in Grounded, a new play opening at the Civic Playhouse on May 10.

Farrah finds herself ridiculed by fellow high school students, especially the boys, because she wants to work in a domain that has traditionally been seen as a man's world.

And Farrah herself has doubts on the June weekend in 2007 when a fierce storm leads to the grounding on Nobbys Beach of the Pasha Bulker, a ship waiting off Newcastle to load coal.

The story ends well, however, with the sounding of ships' horns in celebration as the released Pasha Bulker is towed into Newcastle Harbour having its parallel in Farrah's life, with a boy she admires returning her affection and accepting her choice of career.

Grounded was written by Alana Valentine, one of the national playwrights who served as mentors for the young writers in Tantrum Theatre's emerging writers' program between 2009 and 2011.

During her visits to Newcastle she noted the views the teenage and young adult members of Tantrum voiced about life in the city. She also became intrigued by the number of people she encountered who talked about the wild weekend when the Pasha Bulker went aground and who recalled what they were doing at the time.

She talked to then Tantrum artistic director Brendan O'Connell about writing a play drawing those elements together. O'Connell, in turn, discussed the possibility of a joint production with Fraser Corfield, his counterpart at Sydney's Australian Theatre for Young People.

As a result, Grounded will follow its two-week season at the Playhouse with a one-week season at ATYP's Studio 1 Theatre at Walsh Bay from May 30. Appropriately, given the nature of the play, the ATYP venue is on a former commercial shipping wharf, with cargo vessels still passing by.

The production will have a cast of nine Tantrum actors aged 15 to 26, plus professional actor Paul Kelman who has appeared in television series including All Saints, Home and Away, McLeod's Daughters and Water Rats, as well as several films.

Grounded has been developed over a two-year period, with Alana Valentine discussing the story and the issues involved with young and older Novocastrians. Script drafts were workshopped, with the writer taking on board suggestions by the actors participating in the workshops.

The writer also spoke to Newcastle officials whose jobs gave them post-Pasha-Bulker-storm roles, key among them the harbourmaster and other port workers, including a female marine pilot, Captain Sandra Rush, who is one of the few women doing such work in Australia.

One of the things she asked Captain Rush, unsurprisingly, was why she had chosen a seagoing career.

Toni Main, Tantrum's current artistic director, said that on her first day in the role 12 months ago she was handed an emailed copy of the script's first draft.

"It is great how Alana has been able to incorporate so many things in a story about young people's search for identity in a changing city, and set against the background of a ship's grounding.

"She has taken on board their comments about the way young people see Newcastle and whether they want to stay here.

"It's a beautiful story, as you watch the journey that Farrah makes with the other characters. Initially none of the people of her age like her, but she makes her choice and stands her ground."

Sixteen-year-old Jemima Webber plays Farrah and, as she is around Farrah's age, has "found more of myself in Farrah and more of Farrah in me".

Just as rehearsals began, her family moved to a house near Swansea Channel and watching boats go to and from Lake Macquarie through the channel has given her more insight into Farrah's passion for a sea-related career.

The role is a demanding one. She is on stage for all but three minutes of the play's 90-minute running time.

"I move from actions such as talking to the harbourmaster to chatting with my friends, so the constant change keeps me focused," she said.

Alana Valentine uses different styles in telling Farrah's story. Naturalistic scenes are followed by highly stylised ones.

And Farrah's mother is played by three actresses who generally are on stage together. They have diverse attitudes, suggesting the woman at different stages of her life and trying to work out how to best relate to her daughter.

By contrast, there are intimate and charmingly romantic scenes which show two young people falling in love.

Mathew Baird-Steele plays Jack, the boy who is increasingly attracted to Farrah, with Emily Daly, Naomi Dingle and Tamara Gazzard as the three personalities of Farrah's mother, Matilda. Paul Kelman's roles include the harbourmaster. Other cast members are Dean Blackford, Siobahn Caulfield, Scott Gelzinnis and India Wilson. Toni Main directs.

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