Theatre Works enthusiastically launched their exciting 2019 programme,  Chapter Two, earlier this year, and with its focus on exploring and celebrating hidden and unheard voices, as well as a significant focus on new female teams, Chapter Two is ready to reveal its second offering of the year, The Three Graces.

The Three Graces is a new and exciting Australia work drawn from Greek myths written by NIDA graduate Laura Lethlean. It draws some inspiration from Zeus – Greek God of Sky and Thunder – and his daughters, however, Lethlean’s first inspiration to write the piece was the fountain outside the NGV in Melbourne.

“I would walk past it on my way to work and back again on my way to the station. It always made me pause,” she says. “During this time, Capetown in South Africa was going through a water crisis. They were about to reach day zero, when they would completely run out of water. People were already queuing up at communal water sights for hours each day to get their limited allocation of water. During this time I also watched a doco called For Love Of Water (FLOW) which depicted the water crisis occurring in South America and how the commoditisation and privatisation of water was leaving people without anything to drink, wash or cook with. “

It was while pausing at the NGV fountains, and watching this vital substance splashing around, that Lethlean recalled that Melbourne is at a similar latitude to Capetown with a similar population. She also began thinking about what was behind those high grey walls at the NGV.  “Some of the artifacts in their collection are thousands of years old – some are from ancient Greece and Rome,” she says. “There are statues in there that have been around since before Christ… legacies in their own right, themselves the definition of beauty and art and what we as humans feel should be preserved.”

That’s when the voices of The Three Graces came to her. Something about that immense span of time, and the short-term priority of the way we look after our water versus the long term priority of the way we preserve these art works – these cultural signifiers- really stuck with her. It got her thinking about where our values lie.

The action in the play takes place entirely on a platform of salt. It contains three female performers who double as the Three Graces and three Real Women existing in society.

Lethlean explains that The Three Graces manifest as marble statues in a fountain; however, the water in the fountain has been switched off due to a water crisis. As the play progresses, the city dries up and the Graces wonder if the humans will preserve them or if they’ll be left behind, forgotten in a deserted city.

The performances are incredibly physical and choreographed when they are the Graces, and much more confined when they are the Real Women.

Some of the themes explored in the work are:  Power, motherhood, sustainability and legacy.  These ideas are introduced as separate entities, but soon converge and collide, resulting in a turbulent and rapid urgency that leaves the audience desperate to take action.

Let lean goes on to explain that the performers’ confinement to the salt platform reinforces that as women, they are trapped. Our main protagonist is stuck in a specifically female trap: she fears that her life as a woman is meaningless unless she has kids. She believes what society has told her.

This is why women feel pressured to ‘have it all’- they must have children (as that’s where their societal function lies) and also to be seen as legitimate economic contributors to society, in order to feel like they have any legitimate power or influence. 

This story is set against the universal context of climate change.

The drying up of the city acts as a euphemism for a larger change in climate taking place. It asks, if we all devote our lives to achieving a personal legacy, where does that leave the problems that must be solved on a collective level? If we ignore these problems for too long, the only legacy we will leave behind is one that will confirm the demise of humanity.

As  a playwright, Lethlean admits to being inspired and interested by anything that is true.

“I don’t mean the content has to be non-fiction… I more that the essence of what is trying to be expressed has to come from a place of emotional truth,” she says. “I don’t often name my characters. I don’t know if that’s a deficit in my writing. I think it comes from my aversion to straight realism. I love theatre that relies on the audience to imagine. To work.

The other day I saw a comedy festival show where the comedian offered an audience member an invisible deck of cards and asked them to take one and show it to the audience. And the audience member did exactly that without thinking. Humans are so ready to imagine, to play and to believe. I like theatre that harnesses that readiness and allows us to participate in the here and now.”

The work is being directed by another NIDA alumni, Katie Cawthorne (Lethlean, Cawthorne and Jessica Arthur are co-founders of The Anchor Theatre Company). The couple met at NIDA in 2014 when they were paired together to create a play with the students at ACPA in Brisbane. “We just loved the way each of us worked in the room – using intuition and always reorienting back to the truth of what we were trying to express,” says Lethlean. “Katie directed my final reading of the graduating play I wrote and I worked with her to create her graduating play. After NIDA we formed The Anchor with Jess Arthur and since then we have worked together creating theatre in Canberra, Sydney and now Melbourne.”

Lethlean describes Cawthorne as one of the most brilliant directors in the country. “I can’t believe she wants to work with my words. This is our fifth project together and every time I see her in the rehearsal room I’m amazed by the powerful work she can achieve. She’s incredibly adept at allowing everyone in the room to contribute and invest in the piece. Collaboration under her leadership always makes for a strong and truthful outcome. I spend a lot of time in the room with her while she directs, as hearing and seeing the script in motion provides me with the best opportunity to edit. Katie’s absolute strength is creating meaningful physical performances. She’s a gun at creating visual imagery that gets to the core of the play and reveals emotional truths for the audience.”

The  production is a partnership between two female driven companies – The Anchor and Three Birds Theatre. There are three VCA graduates and three NIDA graduates – a meshing of Melbourne/Sydney artists. Lethlean explains the genesis of the collaboration:

“I met Maddie Nunn (one third of Three Birds Theatre) in 2016 when we were both in the ATYP fresh ink mentoring program. We got along really well, and so when she told me her play was on, I went and saw it. It was a Three Birds show and I was blown away by how strong their sense of ensemble was and how clever their theatre making was.

They obviously understood not only how to construct a story, but also how to perform it. I was absolutely engaged and enchanted by them. So when I happened to write a play that needed three female performers, I had to ask them first. Luckily they were available. The strength of their ensemble works so well with the physicality of Katie’s direction and elevates the script beyond what I imagined.”

Set at a tipping point, in a world of shifting morals, The Three Graces explores the tension between our personal responsibility to the future, and our collective desperation to transform ourselves into something worthy of preservation.

Says Lethlean: “People concerned with climate change and their personal stake in the future will absolutely identify with this play. More specifically, women who are currently experiencing the tension of expectation between career and parenthood will be most drawn to this play. (Therefore, women between the ages of 25 – 45) There will also be an immediate response for older women who have come up against these challenges their whole lives. This play provides room for different generations of woman to have more nuanced conversations around big issues that affect more than half of Australia’s population. In addition, when younger men with good intentions towards feminist theory encounter the script, they come away having heard these issues articulated in a way that is tangible for the first time. They listen to the experiences set out in this play, and learn from what they hear.

Furthermore, people who enjoy physical theatre and the gestural choreography of Pina Bausch or Nicola Gunn will also enjoy this play.”

May 22 – June 2