State Theatre Company South Australia has announced its 2020 season – Mitchell Butel’s first as Artistic Director.

Butel was in London at the end of last year performing in Rumpelstiltskin – a co-production between STCSA and Windmill Theatre Co – when he discovered he had been appointed to the position of Artistic Director, which he took up officially in March this year. “So I spent all my days in a bookshop just reading, reading, reading, so it was actually perfect,” he tells Limelight. “A lot of my dreaming happened then, so when I arrived I was ready to rock and roll. There are some commissions that Geordie [Brookman] had put in place that will hopefully come to fruition in 2021 but the actual 2020 season is programmed by me, which is exciting,” says Butel.

The season opens in February with Dance Nation by Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Clare Barron, a highly original play, which is set at a fierce dance competition for teenage girls, played by adult actors. “Dance Nation and The Writer [which STCSA is presenting in July] both came from me being in London and reading so much. Both of them I read in one sitting, they’re both such ferociously brilliant, intelligent, funny, mind-bending works. I remember sitting in the National Theatre bookshop wanting to yell at people, ‘oh my God, oh my God, this play is so brilliant!’” says Butel with a laugh.

Tara Morice, Chika Ikogwe and Louisa Mignone, Dance Nation. All promotional photographs supplied by State Theatre Company South Australia

Dance Nation is being co-produced with Belvoir in association with Adelaide Festival, while The Writer is a co-production with Sydney Theatre Company. “They’re quite big shows so the co-producing means we share the cost but it also means we get to see it in more places, and the best of Adelaide gets out to the rest of the nation so I’m thrilled we’re co-producing both.”

When Clare Barron wrote Dance Nation, she had a mentor who said ‘write the messiest play you can imagine’ and it really is. It’s kind of form-breaking, it’s a kind of fantasia about women talking about their bodies, and their ambitions and friendship and love and choice, and it’s so electric and very kind of honest like the series Girls by Lena Dunham. It’s very frank about what it is to be a woman and a young woman as well,” says Butel.

The New York Times review said it’s blazingly original, and I’ve never read a play like it before so it’s a great statement of intent for my first show – ‘here you go Adelaide, cop that!’ And it’s in the Adelaide Festival too. The company hasn’t been in the Festival for a couple years, but [joint Artistic Directors] Neil [Armfield] and Rachel [Healy] were very keen on it.”

Dance Nation is directed by Imara Savage, with set and costume design by Jonathon Oxlade, lighting by Alexander Berlage, and choreography by Larissa McGowan, with Butel himself playing the male characters in the play.

In March, Jonathan Biggins presents his solo show The Gospel According to Paul, about Paul Keating. “I expected it to be hilarious but I was so moved by it as well, the notion of what it means to give up your life to politics, and what it means to your family. It a beautiful portrait of Australian political life, I thought,” says Butel.

Hsaio-Ling Tang, Single Asian Female

Next comes Single Asian Female by Michelle Law, which began life at La Boite in 2017 and which has since toured. STCSA is presenting the La Boite production, which Butel saw at Belvoir. “When I was interviewed for the job, this was in my dream list of projects as well for a few reasons,” says Butel. “When I was on the board of Belvoir, it had such a huge impact. It sold really well, but [it was] the mix of the audience; we got a 60 percent new audience and a lot of them were Asian Australians, which was so great. The Asian Australian faces on the State Theatre Company stage have been limited over the years. I thought that needs to change because it’s such a big part of the population here. But also it’s just to kind of go, ‘hey everybody, we’re going to head in a kind of new direction in terms of the diversity of voices we want to be in the program’. I want to generate pathways for Asian actors here in the city but at the moment the pathway has been limited so I’m going to bring the Belvoir production as it stands because I think it’s so brilliant, and it’s hard to replace those fantastic women in it, and I loved it. I thought it’s ready to roll, so let’s bring that here and open that doorway.”

In May, STCSA presents Euphoria by Emily Steel, which will then go on a regional SA tour. Based on conversations that Steel had with people in regional SA communities, Euphoria is a moving new work set in a regional South Australian town. “The great thing about this job is I’ve read so many wonderful plays from national writers and South Australian writers and within five pages of Emily’s, I went ‘if she doesn’t bugger this up by the end, we are doing this play, it’s fabulous’,” says Butel. “It’s set around two central characters, Meg and Ethan. Meg is a regional schoolteacher who has bipolar disorder and has an incredibly beautiful heart and is planning this local festival called Euphoria, and Ethan is a bit of a young, lost soul who is similarly dysfunctional and in search of connection and purpose and meaning, and they find each other bizarrely and lead each other towards healing. We’ve commissioned Emily to write another work already, she’s deeply exciting.”

Elaine Crombie, The 7 Stages of Grieving

In another co-production with Sydney Theatre Company, STCSA is staging The 7 Stages of Grieving, originally created by Deborah Mailman and Wesley Enoch. Elaine Crombie stars, with Shari Sebbens directing. “It’s on the syllabus here, which is wonderful for students to see it from page to stage. Wes and Deborah Mailman are allowing Shari and Elaine to update it from when it was written 25 years ago. And Elaine is such a firecracker, a great actor and activist and storyteller so it’s wonderful it’s in the season,” says Butel.

In July, STCSA stages The Writer, an incendiary play by UK playwright Ella Hickson. A young female playwright and an older male director find themselves alone in an empty theatre one night. She wants a new form of theatre that dismantles capitalism and overturns the patriarchy. He’s turned on by the commercial potential of her rage. A showdown ensues.

When The Writer premiered in London in 2018, The Guardian described it as “a play about big issues” and “ambitious in its attempt to address the purpose of art, the nature of gender and the need for the mythic in a society governed by fixed, male-determined rules. Playful and impassioned, it keeps one riveted for two uninterrupted hours”.

“I’ve said to people, if this doesn’t get letters to the editor, nothing will, it’s an electric play,” says Butel. “In ways it’s like a David Mamet Oleanna initially but then she moves into this bizarre, surrealist, Caryl Churchill, Tony Kushner situation. It poses the question is there a male form of theatre and is there a female form of theatre, and what do they look like? It asks what the benefits of these are, and about all the Aristotelian unity, and all those Joseph Campbell hero tropes that we find in western storytelling… do we need those or can we kind of explode them and create a new form? It does that while being really acerbically funny and vicious and smart. It’s brilliant writing.” Jessica Arthur directs a cast that includes Emily Barclay, Charmaine Bingwa and Toby Schmitz.

Emily Barclay, The Writer

In September, STCSA stages Patrick Hamilton’s Victorian thriller Gaslight, which was written in 1938 and spawned the 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Catherine Fitzgerald directs. “Geordie Brookman has done a great job in the past few years programming lots of classics that he has subverted in lots of interesting ways, by Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde and Chekhov and Ibsen. I thought it would be great to have a classic that’s a little more lowbrow!” says Butel with a laugh. “Catherine Fitzgerald who used to be the Artistic Associate of the company, and who ran Vitalstatistix for many years, had the fantastic idea of… turning it on its head [so that] we view the whole story through a more feminist lens, and so she’s going to twist a few things in the production that will give life to that. It was interesting to me that that word ‘gaslighting’ is such a huge part of our conversation now about gender politics and identity politics, but it’s derived from this 1930s crime melodrama about people deceiving other people into thinking that they’re crazy. I thought that’s an interesting way of tapping into the conversation, it’s theatrical and fun as well.”

The season ends in November with David Lindsay-Abaire’s razor-sharp comedy Ripcord in which two formidable women duke it out in a nursing home. Butel directs, with Nancye Hayes and Carmel Johnson as the two elderly rivals. “I’ve wanted to direct this play for years actually. It’s a great vehicle for two fantastic ladies of a certain age and Nancye, of course I adore. Nancye gave me my first leading job many years ago in The Fantastics,” he says.

Nancye Hayes, Ripcord

“The play is essentially set in a retirement village and there’s this very cantankerous, implacable, hardened woman living by herself in a room called Abby played by Nancye and this woman called Marilyn who’s all sunshine and lollipops and completely annoying to Abby and they have this bet. Nancye’s character says, ‘if I can make you angry, Miss Pollyanna, you’ve got to piss off,’ and the other one says ‘well, if I can scare you, Miss Implacable, not only do I not leave but I get the bed by the window’. A very simple kind of bet or game is set in motion but from that we spin into this vicious, black battle of wills. But at the same time it ultimately talks about friendship, second chances and what it is to reopen your heart when you’ve decided to close it. Their families get involved and it’s pretty nasty but fun for the audience.”

Perusing the entire program, Butel says: “You realise that getting a job like this, it’s not about you, you’re just a facilitator to what the audiences need to hear, so it’s been a real privilege.”

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