Essence Productions is proud to present the premiere season of a new Australian Work, Jack and Millie. Written by Alaine Beek, the work is based on  Beek’s personal experience of traversing the mental challenges and funny moments of a cancer diagnosis. Coming about when  Beek’s friend (and fellow actor) was asking her how she managed to keep positive through her cancer diagnosis, the play adopts the namesake chosen by Beek to identify and accept her cancer. She explains it was like there was some weird friend (that she ended up naming Jack) sitting on her shoulder that she just had to accept and be comfortable with.

“We ended up having long discussions about it and then in speaking to other people I realised I wasn’t the only one who had gone through this experience,” she says. “From that point I felt this is a story worth telling and a uniquely positive perspective on getting a cancer diagnosis.”

A major theme of the play is realising that there is so much more of our lives under our control than we appreciate. Not always the physical, unexpected things, but we can be accountable and responsible for our choices, our attitude, our decisions.

Beek identifies another theme as dealing with fear and realising how it can affect us. Not letting it overpower us. Also understanding and accepting our own failings. “One of the delightful elements in this play is the sense of play, even child-like fun,” she says. “Children react so honestly and it is always refreshing. Even though Millie is not a child, Jack represents her inner voice which we all relate to.”

Beek explains the play is minimalist in style and has become more so as development and rehearsals have continued. Set and props are two boxes and a scarf.  “What it does is force us to focus on the dialogue, reactions, creating a setting for the audience which is immediately recognisable and engaging,” says Beek. “Pure storytelling.”

Beek credits the writing of the play as definitely cathartic.  Beek says she had not shared this story beyond immediate friends and family till now, but once she realised she had to tell the story she thought, “Well, if I’m going to do it, I’m in boots and all.”

“In the initial stages I had to revisit difficult experiences and worried I would bring myself mentally down in the process, but the opposite has happened,” Beek admits. “Being able to talk about it freely has allowed, for me, even more acceptance and freedom. Interesting that our director Nigel Sutton, whom I’ve known, respected and loved for many years, also used the word “cathartic” when he agreed to direct the play. He initially didn’t think he could do it as he has recently gone through heavy treatment including chemo for prostate cancer, but eventually felt deeply connected to its message and storyline.”

This was initially a more collaborative process than Beek would normally put herself through in writing a play. “I always put my plays through a rigorous development process, but this was different in the level of input at the onset from a few members of my Essence team, some of which had direct experience with cancer,” she says. “It was scary and thrilling as they pushed me to think what it was I really wanted to say. What’s the message? The story? They asked some really hard questions, which I needed. Ultimately the story is that she’s created Jack. She thinks he IS her cancer but actually he’s not. He’s there whenever she THINKS about cancer – which is nearly all the time. That’s what she has to come to understand and accept.”

Creatives closely involved have been David Tredinnick, Phil Cameron-Smith and Chris de Zeeuw, starting with many zoom readings during COVID lockdown.

Beek admits that writing without being able to get together in a room was also very hard. Especially as this is such a minimalist, non-naturalist piece that relies on intimate connection with the other actors. For Beek, it was a joy to be able to actually get together in the physical world.

Some Cancer Survivors may find it difficult to relive their emotional time, and opt to not attend any work about cancer, but Beek’s encouraging words  start by saying that this is not a doom and gloom story.

“It is a unique and positive perspective,” she says. “There is a lot of comedy in the play which comes about from the raw human element. Audiences will be able to laugh at themselves in a great way, through us.”

Having said that, she admits there are some very poignant moments in the play, often when least expected. Beek encourages people to contact her afterwards and chat if they’d like. “Also Cancer council, which I’m doing some fund raising for through a Jack and Millie campaign, have fantastic resources and support,” offers Beek. “More than I realised prior to doing this play. But ultimately, share share share your worries, thoughts, inner demons.  Guaranteed there are many going through the same experience.”

As a playwright, Beek always looks for a really good story.  “I’m a people watcher and make mental notes on a daily basis on how we behave and then try to bring that to life in the most truthful way I can,” she says about her process. “I love digging into the human headspace. Sometimes I see something and think, ‘There’s a story there, I’ve got to tell it.'”

“I was once at a funeral. It was a hot day and we were all standing around the grave. The minister was handing out flowers so you could throw them on top of the coffin. An elderly lady was sitting on her walker, obviously an important part of the family but very frail. She took a flower, stood up shakily, threw her flower into the grave but nearly threw herself in with it. I’ve put that in my play The Scrunch Test. The reactions of shock and trying to stifle laughter was brilliant. ”

Beek has been running her production company ‘Essence Productions’ since 2003 which involves a team of actors and backstage crew who collaborate with Beek to write, create, develop original Australian work .  Beek believes everyone can love theatre with her goal being to discover more wonderful Australian stories as well offering more opportunities to our youth.

“I so often hear people say, “Oh I don’t go to the theatre, I don’t like it.”  I just think, “Well that’s because you as yet haven’t experienced theatre that resonates with you.” My aim is to build theatre audiences, reach more people with great stories,” she says.

“Essence Productions is a team of actors and backstage crew with me as director. Everything we do is original, because that’s what I love. Finding stories, writing, creating, developing and working with super talented people that I learn from. I love the collaborative process. My aim is to bring as many authentic original stories to audiences as I can.”

Beek would love to have her own performance space, create a warm welcoming atmosphere and make audiences want to come back again and again.

Jack and Millie traces the story of a fifty-something professional at the peak of her career, who is about to find out just how quickly life can change when she’s unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer. We all respond differently to life changing moments; Millie deals with her shocking news by creating an imaginary friend called Jack. A friend to help her make sense of a world that has just been completely turned upside down.

Beek says audiences will be surprised, excited and be motivated to talk about it. They’ll have a little more understanding, possibly a few more tools to work with and a shared experience of one woman’s honest story.

February 17 – 27