The circumstances surrounding the Australian premiere of lauded New York play MilkMilkLemonade sound like fate. It all began when the Artistic Director of the New Theatre, Louise Fischer, began the search for a play to be performed during this year's Sydney Mardi Gras. As the director, Melita Rowston explains, Fischer was not looking for “A traditional woe-is-me historical piece or a camp cabaret, [she] wanted something which is actually a good story and is theatrical.” She called together a meeting of the board to discuss the possibilities. As Rowston tells it, “Everyone came to this meeting and at the meeting three people pulled the same play out and said 'I've heard about it, it’s gone crazy in New York, there's been over 20 productions across America.' I mean, what are the chances?”
Good fortune also played a hand in her involvement in the play, Rowston explains. Fischer selected her to direct after the success of last year's Crushed, the play she wrote and directed for Spare Room. “Lousie asked me to read it and it was like they knew me inside out,” Rowston says. “It was perfect for me as a vehicle. As a writer it was exciting because it had a love story at its core, but as a director it's full of what I like to call 'incredibly weird shit' – which for a newspaper you would probably describe as 'highly absurdist theatre.'”
A NIDA graduate and former resident Griffin Playwright, Rowston has worked at Belvoir Theatre and the Sydney Theatre Company. Her experience is in highly theatrical movement-based theatre, which seemed a great fit for the play. “There's all these great dance routines,” she says. “This script hands it all to you on a platter, it's very present, very theatrical and dynamic and it says 'Come on…!'”
The play follows the eleven-year-old gay protagonist Emory, whose best friend is a giant imaginary chicken called Linda. His grandmother orders him to spend more time with the masculine pyromaniac bully down the street, Elliot, in the hope that he can be 'cured' of his homosexuality. Casting the play could have been a nightmare, with the most difficult role to cast surely being the eloquent pre-pubescent protagonist, but Rowston had a “good feeling” about an actor she had met once … and never seen on stage.
“I just had a feeling that he'd be right for the character,” she says of Mark Dessaix, the ACTT graduate and star of New Theatre's previous Mardi Gras offerings, last year's The Temperamentals and 2010's Hard Core.
For Dessaix, the feeling was mutual: “We'd only met once – very briefly – and then Melita emailed me out of the blue. She'd never seen me in anything but she wanted me to read the script. Instantly Emery's voice came into my head and I read through it again and then after the third time my heart was set on it and I thought, 'This is the play I was looking for.'”
Dessaix says that part of the appeal was the fresh perspective it brought to queer theatre. Fresh from a national tour of a children's play with Monkey Bar, he says he was looking for something new for this year's Mardi Gras. “I was looking for a gay play that was for a new generation, that wasn't historical about the gay rights movement or being gay ruins marriages or AIDS and HIV. While [those themes] have an important place in queer culture, I felt like it was time for something colourful and fun and young, something more celebratory and uplifting.”
For the role of Elliot, Dessaix suggested his former ACTT classmate Kieran Foster. As luck would have it, Foster had just touched down in Australia from a holiday in Mexico.
“I'd been back one day and I was totally jet lagged but I went in to audition. The timing was so lucky,” Foster explains. “All the stars aligned, totally. I had a similar experience [to Mark], as soon as I read it I couldn't sleep that night and I wanted to be in it.”
Rowston and Dessaix were impressed by Foster's unflinching take on the character. “Kieran came in and did it really white trash,” Rowston says. “[The character] sets fire to things and has like fifteen brothers and sisters and old cars in the front yard, and he was the first person to read it like that.” She was also impressed by the chemistry between the two stars. “He was the first person who did the dancing with Mark, and there was a gorgeous physical fit between them.”
The content of New York playwright Joshua Conkel's 2009 play is somewhat controversial and may be polarising for some audiences – it is, after all, about gay children. But Dessaix feels that the play has a universal appeal: “It really speaks about those people who are not of their world, people who are not for that time and place, who feel like they don't fit in… For me, I realised I was different from about seven or eight, I didn't know about sexuality or anything like that but I knew I was different.
Rowston adds, “It's a gay play but it's for anyone who grew up feeling a bit different, from the country or from suburbia or somewhere you didn't want to be or where you felt disconnected. It's going to resonate with gay and lesbian audiences but at the same time it's a coming of age story.”
The appealing character of Emory – a savvy but innocent kid who manages to stay positive in the face of oppression – is part of the charm of the play, and Dessaix feels that the character will resonate with audiences, despite his young age. “Emory is such a brave and self-assured and loving person, he represents all these things I wish I could have been at 22 and he is these things at 11 – he gets made fun of at school and is bullied and beaten up and instead of that festering as rage inside him he takes it and creates beautiful dance routines,” he says. “He's going to take the lemons of this town and make beautiful bright lemonade with it, he's going to succeed and be somebody because he knows that he can. And I think there's a wonderful universality to his personality, it's not stuck in his age. He represents these aspirations that we all have as human beings, across any age.” He adds that a large part of the appeal of the character is his emotional maturity and eloquence: “He does have these boyish qualities, but he's so honest and quite advanced in how he expresses his feelings through movement and art and words.”
Dessaix feels that the humour of the play is what sets it apart from some other queer plays, despite its dark themes. “It's really funny and it's all about being yourself, it's not a downer of a play, it's got a lot of hilarious moments.”
Rowston adds, “Well, a lot of people are excited about the fact there's a giant chicken in it. That seems to excite people.”
MilkMilkLemonade runs from 7th February to 2nd March as part of the Sydney Mardi Gras at the New Theatre, 542 King St, Newtown. For tickets: www.newtheatre.org.au or 1300 347 205.