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Q&A/What to SEE/Theatre

What to SEE: Toast

3 May 2022

Liz Newell’s Toast charmed audiences when it premiered at The Blue Room Theatre in 2017. Now it’s taking to the State Theatre stage, thanks to a collaboration between The Blue Room and Black Swan State Theatre Company.

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Based on Whadjuk Noongar Boodjar (Perth), Liz Newell is a playwright and producer driven by the desire to produce “positive and empowering representations of queerness”. They founded Maiden Voyage Theatre Company in 2016, with the aim of championing the voices of women and queer artists. Their plays Belated (2016), Alone Outside (2017) and Toast (2017) have all been presented at the Blue Room Theatre, and Alone Outside was presented in Melbourne in 2019 by Lab Kelpie.

As part of the partnership between Black Swan State Theatre Company and the Blue Room Theatre that began in 2021 with a season of Scott McArdle’s Playthings, Toast will be presented at the State Theatre Centre of WA this May.

At once funny and bittersweet, Toast tells the story of three sisters dealing with the sale of the childhood home amidst the grief of losing their mother. Nina Levy talked to Liz Newell to find out more.

Nina Levy: Liz, you’re original from Menang country, in WA’s South-West. How did that experience, of growing up in regional WA, shape your path as an artist?

A portrait of Liz Newell. They have short hair, and they're wearing glasses and a black t-shirt with a small picture of a goose holding a knife in its beak. Their arms are folded.
Liz Newell

Liz Newell: Like most people who spend their formative years in a tiny town pretending to be a city, I have a complicated relationship with the place. It has an undeniable personality all of its own, which I spent a lot of time grappling with or, admittedly, feeling a little weighed down by. My teenage preoccupation with the bright lights of the big city has, I think, given me a strong sense of place… if a slightly romanticised version.

There’s also something about my self-aware struggle with the duality of that beautiful, frustrating world that exists in everything I write; I’m interested in contradictions and grey areas. There’s a lot of humanity to be found in there. But on a practical level, living in a small place makes it a lot easier to meet people, and meeting people leads to opportunities. I’m very grateful to it for that.

NL: You made your Perth debut as a playwright in 2016, with Belated – what led you to that point? How did you find your way into theatre?

LN: I don’t think I would have found theatre if someone hadn’t suggested I take on a local playwriting project. That person knew I wrote because I went to school with her daughter. I was gifted a lovely little project turning oral histories from the region into a play for young performers, and paired with the incomparable Finegan Kruckemeyer as a mentor.

It’s all pretty obscene, as far as starting-out stories go. Up until then I had delusions of being a bestselling author. When I realised an entire artform existed where I could mostly write dialogue – drive a story entirely with what people are saying to each other, and what they aren’t, and why and why not – I was hooked.

When I moved to Perth in 2014, I was accepted into Black Swan’s first Emerging Writers’ Group program, and I wrote Belated during that time.

NL: Your play Toast, which will open at the State Theatre of WA in May, premiered at the Blue Room Theatre in 2017 and tells the story of sisters Candice, Alex and Sydney, who are dealing with the sudden death of their mother. What motivated you to write about grief, and about sisters in particular?

LN: I don’t have any siblings, so I’m fascinated by the concept of sharing a parent with another person. I’ve gathered that for most people, the sibling is someone you either want to kill, or would die for, and that it can change depending on the day. Unless your sibling is your best friend – that’s also possible. It’s hard to pin down, isn’t it?

The fraught nature of the sibling dynamic is catnip to me, and I’m all for putting complex, wonderful women on stage, so I chose sisters. And I wanted to write a story that’s as emotionally complex as possible. I learned siblings often have conflicting memories of their shared childhood, too, and the role of their parents within that. I thought a raw and immeasurable grief for their mother would complicate things further, allow us to watch these women grapple with their shifting understandings of a parent who isn’t around anymore to speak for herself, and explore what growth (or decay) such a thing might prompt within them.

Alex is 18 days sober when their mother passes; Candice is managing a complicated relationship with her husband. To add to the complexity and feed into the then-emerging themes of family and belonging, I decided the third sister would be much younger, and adopted, and also gay, because why not.

Three people are on the set of a play, which looks to be a storage shed - there are shelves loaded with plastic  and cardboard storage boxes in the background. One woman is jumping in their air with what looks like excitement. Another glares at her. Between them a third person has their hand clapped over their mouth and their eyes closed.
Alison van Reeken, Sam Nerida and Amy Mathews in ‘Toast’ rehearsals. Photo: Daniel James Grant

NL: As a queer audience member, I find it refreshing to see stories about queer people told on the mainstage. What does Toast bring to the stage, in terms of representing queer experiences?

LN: I’m very queer and very comfortable with that, but any queer kid knows what it feels like to grapple – however briefly – with that part of yourself, and how life-changing it can be in those moments to see yourself represented, positively, in a story. This is still so rare to see, in all mediums, not just in theatre.

In Toast, the story of Sydney is crucial to the overall narrative, the journeys of the other two sisters, and in exploring ideas like belonging and found family – which everyone can relate to, but I think are inherently pretty queer concepts.

It’s also nice to see a queer story that isn’t a coming-out story – those are so important for many reasons, but there’s something really empowering and affirming about watching a gay woman simply be allowed to exist, rather than teasing internal or external conflict from her sexuality. Syd has plenty of things to worry about in Toast, but liking girls isn’t one of them.

NL: How are you using this remount of Toast to develop the script?

LN: I was stoked to not hate the script when I re-read it for the first time last year (a real possibility), but it was also obvious to me that I’d left a lot of storytelling potential on the board. I wanted to get to know Candice better, I wanted Alex’s journey through recovery to feel a little more grounded, etcetera.

To reunite with two of Perth’s most extraordinary actors, Alison van Reeken (Candice) and Amy Mathews (Alex), in this endeavour has been utterly priceless. If there’s anything those two don’t know about crafting story and character, it’s probably not worth knowing. Not to mention our immensely generous director Emily McLean and Black Swan’s Literary Director Polly Low, who spent months with me on the text before we started rehearsing again.

Mostly though, I was excited that 2022 Liz could return to Sydney’s story with a confidence and a stronger sense of self that 2015 Liz, bless their heart, didn’t have. I’ve loved having the chance to deepen Sydney’s journey and the depiction of her queerness with a more unapologetic eye.

Our other cast members, the fantastic Anna Lindstedt (who plays Sydney) and Sam Nerida (real estate agent Gwen), experienced their own journeys with sexuality and identity in the time between productions, as I did. We like to joke we all got gayer in the interim, and so has the show.

NL: The opportunity to remount Toast is the result of a partnership that was piloted last year, between Black Swan State Theatre Company and The Blue Room Theatre. From your perspective as an independent artist, what is the benefit of this initiative to artists and audiences?

LN: This show would not exist without The Blue Room Theatre, and neither would the careers of most of the people involved in making it. I, for one, owe that place more than I’ll ever articulate. We did the 2017 production with $2,000 cash support from the venue and a little more from our own pockets, and paid ourselves a modest cut of a modest box office. The gain from our beautiful little season was far beyond anything financial, but this isn’t a sustainable way to make theatre, or to progress the careers of artists.

With Perth’s lack of any mid-tier theatre company, the leap from this context to the State Theatre Centre and a six-figure budget feels, understandably, insurmountable. But without the opportunity to play with a bigger budget in a bigger venue to a bigger audience, artists can’t be expected to grow in their craft and their capabilities, or create new relationships that might further advance their careers.

The Blue Room Theatre’s partnership with Black Swan, and Minderoo Foundation’s support of Toast specifically, is invaluable for attempting to bridge this gap. Artists get priceless skills development, and audiences get to see bold new stories from fresh, exciting voices. It’s a win-win.

Toast plays the State Theatre Centre of WA, 5-15 May 2022.

Pictured top: Anna Lindstedt in rehearsals for ‘Toast’. Photo: Daniel James Grant

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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