Show artwork for No easy answers
Kat Stewart in Admissions. Photo: Jeff Busby
Features

No easy answers

Kat Stewart is back at MTC in the biting, satirical comedy Admissions. She tells us why it’s a play she couldn’t ignore and why she’s drawn to complex, flawed characters.

By Paige Farrell

Kat Stewart returns to the stage as Sherri Rosen-Mason in Admissions – a satirical comedy that examines power and privilege through the lens of the education system. It’s packed with fast-moving dialogue that challenges the ideals of its characters, and the audience, at every turn.

‘The issues it grapples with are so complex and layered and tricky,’ Stewart explains. ‘At different points, characters say things that are deeply offensive or confronting, and then in another moment, they actually make a really salient point.’

Stewart is particularly interested in that in-between – the grey that appears when there is no clear cut right or wrong. ‘Very rarely do you get to explore the grey in people. And I think we should, because we all are good and bad and flawed. Admissions is an opportunity to explore that.’

Admissions’ playwright Joshua Harmon agrees. In an interview for Lincoln Centre Theatre, New York, during their production of the show in 2018, he said:

In my experience, white characters are often relegated to one of two roles: either they're monstrously insane psychopathic racist villains or they're saintly white saviours … But in real life, most people are not all good or all evil. Most of us live somewhere in between those two extremes … I wanted to try and capture an aspect of race as it pertains to white people that I'd never seen onstage before, one which presents white people who live in that grey area, and doesn't delineate between clear villains and saints.

‘It pacts a real punch,’ Stewart aptly summarises. She first read the script in one sitting, and she couldn’t help but sit straight up afterwards. ‘I felt deeply challenged by it. It’s funny, but it’s also confronting and provocative. It’s pretty hard to ignore a script like that.’

Admissions is set in New England, US, where Sherri Rosen-Mason and her husband Bill Mason work at a prestigious high school as the head of admissions and headmaster, respectively. They have fought hard to diversify the student body and they’ve largely succeeded. But when their son’s application to Yale is deferred, personal ambition collides with progressive values, with turbulent results.

MTC ADMISSIONS photo Jeff Busby 1248 z4fdoh

Simon Maiden, Kat Stewart and William McKenna in Admissions. Photo: Jeff Busby

Tackling tough topics

Performing in plays that are thought-provoking and challenging is nothing new to Stewart – she’s attracted to stories that tackle tough questions. ‘One of my favourite plays I worked on at MTC was Disgraced in 2016 … it was a really volatile, well-written, provocative play.’ Although Admissions is very different, she is drawn to it for similar reasons: ‘they both have dynamic, full-bodied characters, and they are attacking material that is timely and important.’

Admissions presents a particular group of white people exploring their privilege. ‘The central idea of the play is, will anything change if no one does anything that costs them?’ Stewart says. ‘And I think that's worth turning over in our heads, in everyone’s heads.’

That’s exactly what Stewart and the entire Admissions team did while preparing and rehearsing the play. ‘I was able to have some good chats with Gary [Abrahams, the Director] beforehand,’ Stewart tells me in response to how she prepared in the lead up to rehearsals. But most of the time she spent reading the script. ‘That’s the starting point for everything … you don’t want to come in rigid in your ideas … you want to be able to define things together.’ 

In his Director’s Notes for the play, Abrahams notes there has been no end of news stories to fuel their rehearsal discussions. He writes that ‘the college admissions scandals in the US from a couple of years back to the religious discrimination bill recently dominating Australian headlines are a couple of examples.’

MTC ADMISSIONS photo Jeff Busby 1371 ayeswh

Deidre Rubenstein and Kat Stewart in Admissions. Photo: Jeff Busby

Comedy with bite

Admissions chooses to tackle these thorny issues by using satire – not any easy feat to pull off. Stewart tells me she believes Harmon decided to write it this way because ‘human beings are messy and flawed and, whether intentional or not, are funny – sometimes it’s that excruciating kind of funny and sometimes it’s the open, typical kind of funny.’ Admissions draws on both to get its point across.

It is a particular type of challenge to stage a comedy about some deeply unfunny subject matter. Abrahams mulls this over in his Director’s Notes and ultimately comes to the conclusion that even though ‘the issues the play brings up are not issues with an easy solve … that doesn’t mean they aren’t issues that deserve constant interrogation from every conceivable perspective.’ Admissions certainly offers up a platter of perspectives and opinions, which lends perfectly to satire.

For Stewart, the challenge also lies in her character. ‘She’s a tricky character, she’s flawed,’ she tells me. ‘Her real challenge in this play is working out how her instincts as a parent can align with her ideals. But I'm drawn to flawed characters and I'm loving the challenge.’

As well as being challenging and thought-provoking, Stewart hopes audiences find Admissions entertaining and stimulating. She’s also looking forward to reigniting the actor–audience relationship, which has been significantly disrupted over the past two years. ‘I hope audience members understand how essential they are to the whole experience for the performance. We feel their vibrations, we feel when they shift.’ And what a play for Stewart to reunite with MTC audiences – an opportunity for everyone to explore the grey in people.

Admissions is on stage at Southbank Theatre.

Published on 16 March 2022

Explore More