Teenage life, as we rarely see it, is being presented in the form of Sugarland at Arts Centre, Melbourne, later this month. The play tracks the lives of teenagers in the Northern Territory and truthfully portrays their fears and challenges through a series of earnest conversation undertaken between the playwrights, Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair, and the young people of remote Katherine.

Both playwrights represent Australian Theatre for Young People and Sugarland is the love project of ATYP Artistic Director, Fraser Corfield.  The idea was that Blair and Coopes would do a series of residences in Katherine, running workshops with the kids and researching to write a play about what life is like for young people in remote NT. “Initially it was meant to be a football play, ” explains Coopes. “At one point it was a boxing play. But that wasn’t the story that really tugged at me from the very beginning. I was interested in the correlation between the high levels of teenage homelessness and teenage pregnancy in Katherine and remote NT towns. The impact of ‘the intervention’, on families and young people seemed to be deep and far-reaching. I knew I wanted to explore that, as the landscape for a story of friendship. And I was interested in the universality of being a teenager regardless of all of these underlying issues. Wayne came the first couple of trips and we talked about the kind of story that was vital to tell. After each draft Wayne gave me killer notes and he was always spot on. We were workshopping the script right up until the final moments before opening in Katherine for the first run in 2014. It was a gloriously long, slow, mindful process.”

Coopes believes that most Australian’s don’t understand the depth of the issues our young people face on a daily basis. “We are failing them massively on a personal and institutional level,” she says. “The issues explored are very real for them. And they are all about survival. Of course the  key to survival when we are young is friendship. So that’s the beating heart of the play.”

“We made sure there was continuity in the process as I did a series of residences. It wasn’t just one trip, in for a while then out. We were teaching workshops, hanging out with the kids outside of school, getting to know and love them and the town. Of course when you spend time in a community and are writing about it, at some point it becomes a huge responsibility to honour the truth and their spirit. So on opening night when I peered through the curtains at the faces I’d spent so much time with, about to see a reflection of their town on stage, it was one of the scariest nights of my life.”


Coopes and Blair made many surprising and alarming discoveries along the way -things that may be interpreted as strange and even foreign by some. For instance, Coopes found  it interesting the way homelessness is defined: “If you have a roof over your head you’re not homeless. So if there’s 10 people living in a one bedroom apartment, they aren’t considered homeless.” She was also  horrified to find that there was just nowhere for young women in crisis. “I think that is a national issue, but in the NT where there is so much homelessness and over-crowding, there is a three year wait list for EMERGENCY housing. Which is why it’s a central part of the story. The helplessness of those on the ground to instigate real change due to decisions made at a government level ‘down south’ was pretty overwhelming. That seems to be an issue in remote communities across Australia.”

The project was not only rewarding for all involved but many positive outcomes were achieved. “At one level it’s exciting for the young people just to have their stories told” says Coopes. “They are never represented on a national stage in this way, so I think that has been really wonderful. Additionally, the work we did running workshops in schools had hugely positive outcomes in terms of engagement and their own storytelling. Some of our richest stories reside in regional and remote Australia. The more we represent them on a national stage, the more our young people will feel worthy, and (know that?)  their voices count.”

ATYP has been bridging the divide between young people and professional theatre practice since 1963. It is proud to be known as Australia’s oldest and largest youth theatre company.  For Coopes the significance of the work ATYP brings to and for our youth  is vital. “It’s the best place to unpack tricky things with young people,” she says. “There have been a lot of conversations about the some of the more confronting content in the play. And that’s the point. This is the world our young people live in. If we can’t reflect that in theatre and have a challenging conversation afterwards, then where can we do it? There’s a degree of separation when examining issues through story and characters that can make those conversations just a little easier.”

Sugarland follows the lives of five teenagers and their local youth worker and explores a hidden world of big responsibilities and simple pleasures, of complex issues and elusive solutions and gives insight into lives rarely seen on the Australian stage. Coopes is hopeful that the project will enlighten and encourage and that audiences get a sense of the wicked spirit and humour our young people maintain despite the enormous odds often stacked against them. “And I hope it starts a conversation about what each and every one of us can do to change things. It’s easy to blame other; ‘them’ – government, the powers that be. But ultimately we are all accountable. Each and every one of us.”

May 19 – 21