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Hannie Rayson on making plays and saving tiger quolls

Extinction began life in Manhattan in 2010.

My agent went to meet with the literary department of the Manhattan Theatre Club on West 43rd Street, to see if they were interested in commissioning me to write a play. It was snowing. She rang me, mid-meeting, from the street.

‘They want you. But you have to write a play about science. That counts you out, doesn’t it?’

I have been with the same agency, HLA Management, since I was 24. My agent, Kate Richter and I have a deep and abiding friendship.

‘You go back in there,’ I barked down the phone, ‘and tell them I am a whizz at science. When I was at school, I smashed science.’

‘Yeah right,’ she said.

‘Just say, “My client has always believed that the cosmos is like a string symphony.”’

‘Thank you,’ said my agent. ‘I can do my own dialogue.’

The commission was secured, pending a shit-hot idea from me, which had to be submitted within the month to the Alfred P. Sloan foundation. This is a philanthropic institution in New York dedicated to using film and theatre to ventilate discussion of science, math and technology. (For example, they funded the movie The Social Network.) The Manhattan Theatre Club would provide the dramaturgy and give a public reading of the play in New York.

I knew I wanted to write about the environment, but what about it?

As the deadline galloped toward me, I read every climate-change book I could get my hands on. The prospect of giving oxygen to climate-change deniers, filled me with an unbearable ennui. On the other hand, the environmentalist-as-hero would involve striding down a well-trodden path to didacticism and ho-hum message theatre.

Then two things happened. Firstly, my friend Karen came from the UK for a holiday, and we found ourselves at the Cape Otway Conservation Ecology Centre, learning about the endangered tiger quoll, the largest marsupial Apex predator on the mainland. The Ecology Centre is running an ambitious project to save it from extinction in the Otways.

Secondly, I read in the newspaper that the Victorian government had given a Queensland-based mining company ‘priority status’ to search for brown coal deposits in the Otway Ranges of Victoria’s wild south coast.

What interested me about the mining company was the CEO. He addressed a public meeting in rural Deans Marsh, where he also had plans to mine. According to several people in attendance, he was so charming that ‘the audience sort of fell in love with him’. He talked about his company’s intentions to export brown coal to India and China, and of his passion to turn brown coal, one of the dirtiest carbon-based fuel sources, into one of the cleanest. In the end, he chose to walk away, in the face of community opposition to the project. But according to my sources, that night he won a lot of friends. ‘He seemed like such a great bloke,’ they told me.

I knew I wanted to create such ‘a great bloke’ as my main character.

Writing a play begins with a lot of ‘what if’ questions.

–What if my fictitious coal-mining magnate was sentimentally attached to country that is also rich in coal deposits?

–What if he grew up in the Otways? If so, when he was a boy, there would have been thousands of tiger quolls running around.

–What if one dark and stormy night the coal magnate hit one with his car?

And then:

–What if he launched a massive project with a local university department to save the tiger quoll? Could his charm entice ecologists, environmentalists, university professors and local people ‘to get into bed with Big Coal’?

This became the story of Extinction.

It had its first public reading in New York in 2012. An astonishingly handsome American actor named Jeremy Davidson played Harry Jewell, the coal miner. Several women in the audience reported they were ready to leave their husbands. He and the other three actors gave a staggeringly powerful reading.

I left New York thinking, I will never see a performance of my work that good in Australia.

I was wrong.

I have now seen two productions. One at Black Swan State Theatre in Western Australia last year and this current one, a co-production between Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre and Geelong Performing Arts Centre (GPAC).

The Black Swan production was sponsored by Rio Tinto. After the play opened in Perth, I noticed that Rio Tinto started quietly pulling out of coal.

I claim full responsibility.

The Perth production was lavish and beautifully staged.

This new production (pictured above) has a special place in my heart. It was first discussed on the Aireys Inlet beach on a summer’s day in 2013. I met the general manager of Geelong Performing Arts Centre, Jill Smith, as she was standing in the middle of the beach. She was wearing a flouro-jacket and standing guard over the vulnerable nests and hatchlings of the (now very rare) hooded plover. (The eggs and chicks are particularly vulnerable to dogs, foxes and cats.)

I said, ‘I’ve just finished a play set in Cape Otway.’

Jill said, ‘Send it to me.’

I said, ‘You’re on holidays.’

She said, ‘Send me the play.’

Geelong is the gateway to the Great Ocean Road – which leads straight to Cape Otway. So it is fitting that the play opened on July 13 at the Geelong Performing Arts Centre. Jill Smith, has raised $200,000 for this production, with help from a lot of local people.

The play is brilliantly directed by Nadia Tass and stars Colin Lane, Ngaire Dawn Fair, Natasha Herbert and Brett Cousins.

Paul Grabowsky has written a pulse-racing musical score and filmmaker, David Parker has shot both stills and moving images for the production.

Extinction is now at the Canberra Theatre Centre until July 24 and will be at the Arts Centre, Melbourne in its Fairfax Studio from August 9 -13.

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