New black comedy about refugees

Worm Farming. It may seem like an odd name for a play about our unconscious bias regarding the refugee crisis in Australia.

When Insights sat down recently with playwright Daniel Widdowson about the creative process when writing Worm Farming his new play examining exactly this subject, Daniel noted he would like the satire “to reflect back to the audience some of their unconscious bias and hopefully generate discussion”.

About that title: The play is about a hard working farming couple with their egotistical social-media obsessed daughter and disregarded son, who are taking in a Syrian refugee. At least they’re trying to. First they must impress the hard-nosed representative from the Refugee Council of Australia. This will involve wearing pants, demonstrating a sensitive cultural awareness, keeping unwanted boyfriends, girlfriends, and neighbours at bay and ensuring everyone stays alive in the process.

“It doesn’t provide answers,” explains Daniel. “But it’s about an already dysfunctional family who are put in a situation where they confront head-on, a complex issue they don’t really understand.”

It is clear that in the same way worms provide rich nutrients for the soil in which they reside, Daniel’s play will provide fertile and rich discussion and confront audiences with some assumptions they may or may not have made about refugees and asylum seekers.

Daniel Widdowson is the Director of Salt House Theatre Company, a theatre company he began in February 2016. Daniel is also an associate Pastor at Bensville part of Coast Community Church and an accomplished presenter and writer, having written two feature-length documentaries, as well as scripts for Home and Away and children’s dramas. He has also worked as a presenter on Saturday Disney and the breakfast show on radio station Hope 1032.

So far, Salt House Theatre Company has produced a number of shows on the Central Coast and Newcastle with auditions and rehearsals run out of Kincumber Uniting Church. The production of Worm Farming presents an opportunity to broaden an already accomplished repertoire and reach a much wider audience with a possible national tour in 2018.

“It sounds weird to do a black comedy about refugees right?” says Daniel of the idea of mounting a play about refugees that is also a biting satire.

“It has been an issue that for a while I have wanted to have some sort of voice in some way. But I am not a politician or someone who has the power to change the current situation we find ourselves in.”

What began as “intense drama” quickly morphed into a satire about the preconceived ideas of everyday Australians. In the creative process of discovering how a satire would work, doing table reads with fellow actors and refining the script, he discovered how he could engage audiences with this complex subject.

“I liked this idea of having a typical Australian family who are really naïve and racist in ways that they don’t understand. And so then into this family comes this poor guy who thinks he’s found a home in Australia and lots of horrible things happen.”

The next step was to test the waters in the theatre community and he entered the play in some playwriting competitions just to assess the quality.

“[The play] did well and was making finalist status in some competitions and as part of this process other playwrites review the script. All the playwrites who reviewed it said it was great, that it was hysterical and that they wanted to see it on stage.”

The next step was to contact someone to endorse the play and give some feedback on the content. He contacted Julian Burnside AO QC, who is a well-known Australian barrister, human rights and refugee advocate, and author. He practices principally in commercial litigation, trade practices and administrative law.

Daniel asked Julian to read through the script with the caveat that if he deemed it racist, that he didn’t want to continue to develop it as a play. He read through and emailed back with a glowing endorsement of the play.

“This is an hilarious play,” said Burnside of the script. “It draws out two contradictory aspects of Australian culture. It shows the traditional, genuine Australian instinct for hospitality and concern for those in need; and sets that against the current hysteria about refugees and, in particular, Muslim refugees. And it captures the Australian capacity for hiding (and hiding from) our worst impulses and our worst conduct.”

The play highlights the fact that we are often racist without thinking about it. By exposing some of our unconscious bias through satire, this became the best way of holding up with mirror to that thinking.

“One of the things that I wanted the play to accomplish was to start conversations,” says Daniel. “Audiences will watch the show and it doesn’t answer any questions. But at the end of the play you kind of go ‘Do I think and behave like that?’ And this was proved to me when we did the script reading with the actors, because at the end of the reading they were questioning if they acted like the people they were playing and for the next hour they discussed the issue, and this is the purpose of the play for me. To get conversations happening.”

“At each performance we are hoping people will come along, have a laugh and hang around afterwards to talk about the issue.

“The beauty of satire is it throws the mirror up to our worst behaviour and also highlights our best behaviour. We laugh at satire because we relate to it.

“It’s funny because its absurd, but there is so much underlying truth in it. I’ve always used humour to deal with anything. Even in preaching I always like to bring humour, because people laugh and it opens them up to possibilities. All the characters are to some degree caricatures, but the two real people who enter the situation are the woman from Refugee Services Australia and this bloke called Ferran who is a Syrian refugee. So he comes into the family situation and they believe they are doing this wonderful thing, but they are so insensitive and naïve.”

Daniel will star in and direct Worm Farming. Rehearsals begin next week with two preview shows in Canberra and the Central Coast in mid September and then the premiere season will go to Canberra, Sydney, Newcastle and the Central Coast in October.

“I am eager to see how audiences respond to the play and for it to stimulate conversation about the complex issue facing Australia at the moment,” says Daniel.

About Salt House Theatre Company

Salt House Theatre Company was established in February of 2016. It has successfully produced three major productions in that time, including a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This was attended by the last Austen descendant to grow up in the family home, Caroline Jane Knight. The adaptation was published late 2016.

Salt House Business Manager (Leia Widdowson) has previously worked on Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway premiere production of Puccini’s La Boheme. Daniel Widdowson (Salt House Artistic Director) is currently undertaking a Doctorate in Theology and the Arts.

Worm Farming will begin rehearsals at the beginning of August before launching this six show tour. It is the intention of Salt House Theatre Company to take the show on a national tour in 2018.

For more information about Worm Farming (and its tour dates and locations) and Salt House Theatre Company click here.

Click here if you would like to win two tickets to the Sydney performance at Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre on 5 October

Pictured: The cast of Worm Farming – Daniel Widdowson, Alicia Simes, Tyla Williams, Cara Smith, Chris Clarke, Faron Bish, Emily Mann, Cara Smith, Emily Mann, Chris Bartlett and Jayden Gobbe.




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