The young woman, drafted from the audience to play the parrot, heads towards the entrance of the theatre as directed by one of the actors. With a green, red and yellow cloth parrot over her head and arms she almost looks the part as she flaps her wings. “Keep going,” calls the actor. “Further, further, right outside.” In the centre of the stage, one of the drafted pirates has managed to acquire a musket while, to the right, another audience member bravely tries to fulfil the role of a jellyfish, to much laughter from the audience.
Along with a number of tourists, we are in the gorgeous town of Strahan watching, and participating in, the entertaining play The Ship That Never Was. The play is based on a fascinating Tasmanian story: it’s a story of our convict heritage, of resilience, ingenuity and anti-authoritarianism, and a story that shows the extreme lengths the authorities went to track down any escaped convicts.
It’s also a play that has a history of using untried actors, although initially they were not so untried as to be plucked from the audience.
When the play was first performed, young people who were interested in going into theatre, some of whom did have some acting experience, were part of the team. The play allowed them to work with professionals as a kind of apprenticeship. In the years since, more than 90 people, from total novices to professional actors, have taken part in the play.
In 1984, Charlie Parkinson, then artistic director of the then new Breadline Theatre Company, approached playwright Richard Davey to write a play for their maiden production. Davey knew of just the story to use.
In the 1830s a group of convicts, building ships in the brutal conditions on Sarah Island, stole the ship they’d built and sailed it to Chile, only to be arrested there. The play was written for 12 actors plus a ship so large it could only fit into the Peacock Theatre diagonally. After the initial season, which ran over the summer of 1984-85, the show was recreated to be run outdoors, and for about 10 years was performed at festivals and events around Tasmania and Victoria including the Wooden Boat Festival, the Hobart Regatta and Salamanca Market.
Kiah Davey, Richard’s daughter and manager of the Round Earth Company, which produces the play, told me what happened next. “In 1994, the show came to Strahan for a summer season, after a Parks and Wildlife officer, Allan Coates, had seen it in Hobart. He thought it would be something for the tourists to do in the evening and something for the community as well. We came to Strahan for six weeks – it’s been the longest six weeks of my life!” she said with a laugh. “We were very welcomed by the community when we went there. We were invited back for the next season.” After a few years, they were asked to come back permanently.
When you enter the outdoor theatre in Strahan, bits of timber are lying around and above these hang a few sails to give the impression of a shipyard. Nowadays the set can be broken up into pieces and put together by one or two people. Only two actors are needed; the rest of the cast is drawn from the often-unsuspecting audience. The audience seats are tiered timber benches with blankets scattered around in case the weather is colder than the audience has dressed for, always a possibility in Tasmania, and especially on the west coast.
I asked Kiah Davey how they pick audience members to play specific parts. “I’ve been doing this in Strahan for 25 years and I’m very good at reading the audience. Part of the training for new actors is to take the time to assess the audience. Within five minutes I know who doesn’t want to be up on stage, and I know who does, although kids can be very unpredictable. And even now I sometimes get it wrong.
“The fact of audience participation makes it fresh. Every day is different because you’re performing with different people so it’s a little bit unpredictable. You never know what the audience is going to give you. I love getting out there and seeing what my audience is going to be and performing the play and telling the story.”
The show is obviously a success as can be seen from the length of time it’s been running and the feedback the performers receive. “A lot of the audience who come to see it don’t see professional theatre. They do the show because it’s promoted as a tourist attraction, a bit of a pantomime, so the audience is a lot more relaxed when they come in. There’s no expectation of having to be cultured. I often get people coming out of the show saying to me, ‘I’ve never been to theatre before in my life. I didn’t think I liked it but this was great!’ ”
For tourists, with little or no English, understanding the show can be a bit challenging but the Round Earth Company provides a synopsis in a variety of languages. “Even so I’ve pulled people from the audience who have no idea what I’m asking them to do and they’re terrified, but then they have so much fun.” And that is the show. It’s a feel good story, a great venue for actors, and a way to tell one of our more unusual convict stories, one goes beyond the grim nature of most of the ones we hear (despite being charged with piracy, the convicts amazingly escaped the death penalty – but to find out why, you will have to see the play).
. . o O o . .
The Ship That Never Was is holding its 25th year anniversary performance in Strahan on January 5, 2019. It will be an outdoor event, held at the Strahan Primary School with a variety of other entertainment. The event is free and everyone is invited. Bring your picnic rugs, food and kids and be prepared to be entertained.
Pen Tayler wishes to thank Gordon River Cruises for their generosity in providing her with a trip to Sarah Island and the Gordon River.