Jen Silverman’s absurd, funny and poignant play about grief and loss is soon to make its Australian premiere at fortyfivedownstairs. Still reverberates with Silverman’s characteristic writing style – poetic, insightful and razor sharp. Sentiments echoed by Heartstring Theatre director Sarah Vickery. In fact, it was the playwright’s style that influenced Vickery to direct the piece.

“She’s such a sharp writer. She writes characters with such depth, especially for female identifying characters. Her work is wonderfully queer in its form which gives me as a genderqueer director so much freedom and scope to explore the possibilities that can occur in the world of the play.”

Vickery adds that she had no choice when it came to directing the play. “I had to direct the play due to this. Excellent writing like this thrills me. I don’t feel restricted by binaries in the writing. ”

A darkly comic exploration of loss, intimacy, and motherhood Still tells the extraordinary story of three women connected by a baby who never lived – a difficult subject matter is tempered (or indeed perhaps underscored) by humour.

“Humour is so crucial when talking about subject matter as heavy as this,” explains Vickery. “You’re still the same person; possess the same personality and character when you grieve. Jen Silverman talks towards this in an interview I read online recently about Still. She discusses how who you are is intertwined with the grief you experience and how it leaks through the complexities of our human condition, and I think this is really true. I don’t think audiences want to see grief one dimensionally through sobbing tears. We all deal with grief in many different ways and I think she has addressed this through her writing – beautifully and without judgement. ”

Vickery expands by adding her belief that humour brings an audience “in” and gives people permission to still be themselves even when life throws us really hard circumstances to deal with. “It speaks towards the strength of people, but also celebrates moments when we feel weak,” she says.

An earlier work- 2013 – Still  holds up through a 2021 lens and remains a truly universal story. “I think due to how Jen Silverman writes, her writing holds up itself, based on her capacity to write about the human condition with both tenderness and an unapologetic boldness,” says Vickery. “As it isn’t naturalism it transcends time and space allowing for those who engage with the text – actors, creatives as well as audience – to take what is presented to them and convert the information through their own beliefs, lens and biases. It is universal because we all grieve no matter how diverse our beliefs, point of views or biases are.”

Vickery describes Silverman’s writing as incredibly generous towards actors and creatives.

“She provides enough information to guide us but leaves vast amounts of space for us to explore and find our own way into the characters and the world. It’s rich in poetry, and conversation. The main character of the play is a dead baby, so the absurd is strong but contained in a beautifully symbolic way.”

Vickery explains that all of the characters in the play have been written with great consideration and detail, they are all so incredibly different and somehow co-exist together in this work that feels familiar and alien simultaneously. They contradict themselves constantly which is a part of the humour in the work. I really love this about them as individuals.

Although harrowing, Vickery hadn’t felt it necessary for her personally to research stillbirth from a directing point of view. “If I felt this play revolved around stillbirth in a super literal way I don’t think I would have felt I could have directed it,” she says. “I have been much more interested in the relationships that collide and the blurry intertwining of life and death; the slippery fluidity of the in-between of those two things.”

The biggest joy in the rehearsal room for Vickery has been taking the time to dive into the text and discuss it thoroughly together.

Unfortunately, though, the darkness that is Covid has once again made it very hard to work. “We had one rehearsal and then we were locked down again! The challenge is making our time productive by meeting online and preparing ourselves for when we can be in a room together,” she says.

A graduate of the VCA, Vickery is a lesbian-queer director based in Melbourne. She is Artistic Director and founder of newly formed radical-queer activ(ism) theatre collective, Public Service Announcement (PSA Co). She is on the AccompLez Board for Ballez, a lesbian, transgender and non-binary ballet dance company based in NYC. She’s also an associate artist with Alyson Campbell and Lachlan Philpott’s company wreckedAllprods.

 As a creative, Vickery is always looking for work that is inherently queer. “Work that pushes against the binary structures of theatre and audience engagement,” she says. “How an audience sees actors move around space, and how the space itself can play a character in of itself is of great interest to me. I always seek to make work that dances and moves and doesn’t have the sensation of being trapped inside of something impenetrable.”

“This is what I mean by queer, queer work is fluid and tangible in a million different ways. I’m interested in work whether it be text-based, or movement based that has this fluidity to it.”

Vickery states that she is much more interested in questions than she is about answers. “Answers give us information, sometimes needed clarity and closure but questions keep us growing and learning, ” she explains. “Thematically my work is often activism driven based on questions I desire to dig into.”

 Formed in 2016, Heartstring Theatre is a Melbourne-based theatre company that launched with a Green Room Award nominated all female season of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Heartstring’s mission is to create work where at least half the actors on stage are female-identifying or non-binary. They work to present characters on stage as more complex that have previously been thought and prioritise looking at ideas or experiences that have not been depicted on stage much or even at all – ideals that accommodate both Vickery and Heartstring.

With the season thwarted in 2020 due to COVID-19, Heartstring Theatre now return to the stage, proudly part-nering with the Stillbirth Foundation, to bring this powerful Australian premiere to Melbourne audiences.

As for Vickery and her encouraging words for the audience:

 “We talk about you all of the time! We very much want you to be a part of this work with us. It’s going to be a visceral and warm experience that focuses on the joy. Joy that burns brightly amongst the grief. I think we can all relate to that, especially over this last year and a half.”

June 30 – July 11

www.fortyfivedownstairs.com/event/still

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