What do you do when you stare out to sea, and you see that the only way free is straight down?

Written by Julia Sutherland and inspired by the diversely different writings of Cohen and DiFranco, Swan Dive is a play in verse, a living novel and an homage to music.  Language and landscape dance us daringly close to our own edges in this contemporary story, with themes as old as the human condition itself.

Paul Watson (Twelfth Night, Jersey Boys) directs the world premiere production of Swan Dive, starring Daniel Humphris (We Will Rock You, Flower Children), Fran Middleton (Duckhouse Theatre) and Julia Sutherland (Birthrights, Oleanna). We caught up with the Playwright Julia Sutherland to get the low down…

LEFT TO RIGHT: Daniel Humphris, Fran Middleton, Julia Sutherland, Paul Watson

TP: What was the inspiration for Swan Dive?

Swan Dive is the illegitimate love child of so many influences, to name them all would be harder than trying to find all my lost super accounts. But the shortlist nominees in the category of ‘Inspiration For Swan Dive’ are…The ocean, language, music, philosophy, rhythm, freedom and my eternal fascination with the dynamics of human behaviour.

In terms of how Swan Dive as a play has evolved from this whirlpool, it went a little something like this…Late 2010, I decided it was time to write a new cabaret show and started brainstorming. In compiling my ‘Songs With Lyrics So Evocative I Simply Must Exploit Them For My Own Dramatic Satisfaction’ playlist, I soon found that the vast majority of the tracks were by one of two artists; Ani DiFranco or Leonard Cohen. I’d been a big fan of both for many years, and feasted on their poetry in times of, well, pretty much any emotion you care to name. As I narrowed down the field to just their songs, I started to see the common themes and imagery that were a huge part of why their writing resonated with me; love (of course), travel, surrender, honesty, forgiveness, heights, depths and environment, to name but a few, and the big one – freedom. As I started playing with the order of songs, a little story began to emerge as a possible through-line. Though I hadn’t planned to write this cabaret as a narrative, I went with it, and soon there were 3 characters and an intricate little story weaving between them.

I gave the first draft to Paul (Watson), said ‘What do you reckon?’, and we started throwing around ideas as to its potential as both a solo cabaret and a 3-hander play…Flash forward a couple of years, around 10 drafts (= thousands of hours at café tables for one), two live readings and a boat load of exploration, and today Swan Dive is…a play in verse that takes the form of a living novel, is layered with Cohen and DiFranco references, peppered with lyrical quotations, and punctuated by a couple of songs.

TP: What can audiences expect to take away from this show?

Apart from an experience of language and imagery, each of the three characters in Swan Dive has his or her endearing qualities, flaws and eccentricities. It’s my hope that every audience member can find something in this mix to relate to, as well as something to ponder in reflection, at least subconsciously…If the audience from the reading is anything to go by, I’d say maybe expect to be have your head done in a little (in a really good way of course…) Said Rachel Fothergill, Manager of Chapel off Chapel, “I loved it. And it’s going to be f**ing with me for a very long time.”

TP: Has it been difficult adapting the music and lyrics?

Not especially. The reason why Swan Dive is a play in verse is because my stream-of-consciousness voice, that I have been writing in most days for 20 years (read; talk to myself on paper), has a rhyme and meter to it. So taking existing lyrics and weaving them within the lyrical narrative style has been quite natural.

TP: Why do you read out the stage directions?

Much of the action that occurs on stage forms part of the narrative of the story, as the novel comes to life. Each of the characters has moments where they narrate part of the action, either in 1st or 3rd person, as well as having their own dialogue scenes and inner monologues. Have I done your head in yet? Ha. All will become clear, my friend…It’s actually not nearly as confusing as it sounds…

TP: What have been the challenges in writing and performing the piece?

This is the first time I’ve been in the joint role of writer-performer for a full dramatic work. I’ve performed my own self-devised cabaret and comedy before, but Swan Dive is quite different, not just in style but in process. Because of the intricacies of the piece, I got to a point as the writer where I felt I couldn’t go any further with redrafting until we could cast it and feel it out as a living, breathing thing, rather than just a document. Of course it would be much more sensible as the writer to sit out and watch other actors play with it, so I could make notes as I went etc. and just wear one hat. But I’ll let you in on a secret…While I love words and writing more than I can express, I don’t have huge ambition as a writer, just for writing’s sake. The reason I started writing Swan Dive is because I wanted to perform it. Yes, I am hopeful that it may evolve as a work to have a life beyond this production. But in the meantime, the challenges of being both writer and actor have been far outweighed by the immense creative satisfaction that it’s now bringing. 

TP: What's the show about?

Good question. If someone tells you, can you let me in on it? 😉

Just kidding. In terms of plot, it’s about a successful record exec in his late 30s (Jay) who lives in the city with his equally successful architect wife (Crystal). They’ve been together 12 years, and for the most part, they’re both happy being busy and beautiful in their metro existence.

Occasionally, though, Jay needs to go away to the coast. This is where he gets in touch with a deeper sense of freedom and meaning that seem to elude him the rest of the time. Crystal never goes with him – having nearly drowned as a child, she keeps a safe distance from the ocean, and subsequently from that part of Jay that feels called by it.

When the play opens, Jay has just embarked on one of his solo trips to the coast. What he doesn’t know is that this time the tide will bring a whole new element to his journey – A woman (Suzanna), who embodies the ocean’s very spirit. The antithesis of Crystal’s pristine beauty and focus, Suzanna is a rugged gypsy dreamer, with her own secrets and tale to tell.

From Jay and Suzanna’s meeting, the show becomes an intricate interplay of twists; in personalities, projections, relationships, landscapes, stories, language and time-worn foundations. Each character has their swan dive moment – where they can choose to cling to the crumbling status quo, or hurl themselves headlong towards their deepest fear.

The short answer…It’s an exploration of what it means to be free.

Swan Runs from the 25th of April to the 4th Of May at Theatreworks