S. Shakthidharan is founding director of CuriousWorks. His work focuses on respectful collaboration withj some of Australia’s most marginalised communities and the ongoing sharing of contemporary, untold, Australian stories through both traditional and innovative distribution methods. Shakthi also writes and produces music with the band Asi, whose sounds have featured in The Lanka Project.
For Cybec Electric, S, Shakthidharan presents A Counting and Cracking of Heads, an epic tale that spans time and place, telling the story of four generations of the one family caught in the Tamil diaspora.
What is your play is about?
My play invites audiences into the intimate and private world of a Sri Lankan Australian family, over the course of four generations. It shows the journey of this family from being middle class, united and grounded in their homeland, to being separated and isolated in a new land. Just as the family learns how to be happily separate it is forced to reunite. In doing so, the youngest of the family – the great grandson – is forced to discover the surprising truth of his heritage and his ancestors.
Sri Lanka is known in Australia for its civil war and the Tamil Tigers; for the migrants and refugees that have fled from that war to this country, seeking a new home. My play is about the history that preceded the civil war. It explains how a peaceful country can come to violence, and why it is someone might flee to Australia as a refugee, when all they really want is to stay and rebuild their homeland. Through these unique perspectives, the play offers up fresh questions on Australian multiculturalism and the kind of society we want to build here.
When did you start writing plays?
This is my debut fiction play. I am an interdisciplinary artist that works across live art, film, music and performance. I wrote this play because that was the format this story needed to have.
What inspires you to write? What inspired you to write this play?
My practice is centred around working with communities and this project is born out of working with my own cultural community – the Sri Lankan diaspora.
Two things inspired me to write this play. Firstly, I wanted to provide audiences a more nuanced picture of my community than that often dished up by our mainstream media. As an insider to this community, I understand it in all its glorious complexity. I wanted to share that knowledge and telling a story is, I believe, the best way to do this.
Secondly, I was drawn to the format of an epic, text-based, family play for this story because of how it could both mirror and subvert the classic, epic, text-based family plays of the Western canon. I am interested in bringing this kind of story to the country’s “mainstages” in this kind of format.
You are directing this piece for Cybec Electric, what can an audience expect from a semi-staged reading of this play?
The final version of A Counting and Cracking of Heads will be rich, immersive, interdisciplinary, multi-sensory. It will throw audiences headfirst into a world that we have built for them, and ask them to surrender to it. In contrast, the beautiful thing about this reading is that it will offer up to audiences the script – the real meat of the work – and allow them the space to imagine around it for themselves. The script of this work is full of negotiation and reconciliation, tension and release – it delves into the questions that have vexed my community for generations. A reading of this play will present to audiences these same questions, and ask them to consider their own response – what they might have done were they in the same situation as those in my community.
Playwrights are often told to keep it small and funny – yet your play is epic and tackles civil war, history and cultural dislocation. Is your play the start of a return to BIG plays and BIG stories in Australian theatre?
I don’t know – that’s not up to me! But I do know that every idea – every event, every story – has many truths attached to it. Understanding only comes from seeing all of these truths brushing up against each other, overlapping and contesting for space. That’s what I’m interested in as an artist. In film language, theatre is one, long, static wide shot, offering the audience multiple viewpoints. The audience chooses where it looks; there is no camera to force your gaze a particular way. So the theatre is the perfect place to present and have this kind of experience. If that means making big, epic work – well then, so be it!