In 1988, over 100 gay rights campaigners were arrested at Salamanca Market in Hobart, having defied a ban to prevent them collecting signatures for a petition for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The arrests were highly publicised and spawned a campaign to change the Tasmanian law that, by the time of its repeal, was the last of its kind in Australia.

Playwright Campion Decent is the author of The Campaign, which documents these historic events. The first production, presented by The Tasmanian Theatre Company and Blue Cow Theatre, opened in Hobart in 2018 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the arrests. The play went on to win Best New Writing at the 2019 Tasmanian Theatre Awards and is about to have its Sydney premiere. On Tuesday, as part of the 2020 Mardi Gras Festival, it will open at the Seymour Centre.

Asked about the decision to create The Campaign, Campion Decent tells Theatre People that its original director, Matt Scholten, came to him with the idea.

“He [Scholten] had just been to Tasmania for another production that he was working on, and he stumbled across this public artwork called the Yellow Line, which commemorated the events that the play depicts,” Decent says.

While Scholten wasn’t previously aware of the events in question, Decent had covered the arrests during his tenure as editor of Sydney Star Observer. The two agreed that what occurred in Hobart would make for a terrific piece of theatre.

“We went from there, in terms of getting the support and the imprimatur of key stakeholders,” says Decent.

Those stakeholders included gay rights campaigners Rodney Croome and Nick Toonen, and former Leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown. “They all seemed delighted by the idea, because … on the horizon was the 30th anniversary of the arrests at Salamanca Market.

“As luck and fortune would have it, the first performance … [of] that season in Hobart in 2018 was, to the very day, the 30th anniversary of the first arrests. And, of course, we were performing in the Peacock Theatre, which is in the Salamanca Arts Centre, so we were literally steps away from where the arrests had taken place.”

Rodney Croome’s arrest at Salamanca Market in Hobart in 1988

Decent talks about what audiences can expect from The Campaign.

“It is largely verbatim theatre, but I’ve tried to put it together in such a way that it’s not just monologue after monologue, which some verbatim theatre can be, so it’s kind of got a dynamism to it,” he says. “There is some humour and a bit of song and dance, so there’s a kind of sense of fun throughout it, which is to capture what those campaigns are like. Hopefully, that comes across.”

The play is the result of an extensive research process.

“My first step was to do a whole lot of desktop research, because there’s quite a bit of archival material,” Decent says.

Interviews were then conducted with 20 people, including Croome and Toonen, as well as Christine Milne, the former Leader of the Australian Greens whose Private Members Bill ultimately led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Tasmania in 1997.

“I was drowning in material by the time I actually sat down to write the first draft,” says Decent.

He emphasises the importance of The Campaign as a historical record of the time and events.

“If we waited another 20 or 30 years, a lot of these people wouldn’t be around anymore,” says Decent.

And while the events captured form part of Tasmania’s recent history, many Australians – particularly young Australians – are unaware of what transpired.

“You could argue that in Tasmania, it’s slightly different,” Decent says. “Even if young people don’t remember it, their parents talk about it. But I think on the mainland, judging from the response I’ve had from people, they have no idea about this story, and when they hear it, they’re blown away. They say, ‘What do you mean it took 10 years and that this law was the last in Australia and it ended up going to the United Nations and the High Court of Australia?’

Mathew Lee and Simon Croker are members of the cast of The Campaign, which opens this week at the Seymour Centre (Photo credit: Jasmin Simmons)

Discussing audience responses to the work, Decent describes the initial Hobart season as “very special”.

“We were handing back that community’s story to them, so there was a real connection there and it was a very emotional journey for some audience members,” he says. “We won’t necessarily recreate that in Sydney … But, having said that, I think that the story has universals in it, particularly for the LGBTQI community. It will have resonance and it will spark off their own experiences, even if they have not actually gone through the Tasmanian experience.”

As part of the Sydney season of The Campaign, the Seymour Centre will present a panel discussion on 19 February, featuring former Justice of the High Court of Australia, Michael Kirby AC CMG, Rodney Croome AM, and political commentator and gay rights activist Julie McCrossin AM. The conversation will canvas future battlegrounds and the roles personal storytelling, strategic risk-taking and compromise play in achieving significant social and legal change.

So, what does Decent hope Sydney audiences will take away from their experience seeing The Campaign in the weeks ahead?

“I think The Campaign offers a very useful model and a roadmap for future battlefronts,” he says.

“It was very poignant to us that we were doing this final development and first season during the marriage equality debate, and there were obvious resonances with that. Now, that’s done, we can tick that off, but we’re now in the throes of a religious discrimination debate … So, it can be read into those contexts.

“For me, it’s a moment of, ‘See what people can do when they come together to effect change’. And that’s a universal story, that’s a never-ending story, even if the specifics are over that this play is talking about. It can actually tap into a far broader canvas.

“Hopefully, it’s a point of saying, ‘Wow! Look how far we’ve come’, and it reenergises people for the next battle.”

THE CAMPAIGN – SEASON DETAILS

Season: 11 – 28 February 2020
Times: Tuesday – Saturday at 7pm; Sundays at 5pm
Venue: Seymour Centre (Corner City Rd and Cleveland St, Chippendale)
Tickets: Full $45 / Concession $35
Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com/event/the-campaign/ or (02) 9351 7940

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