Interview: Campion Decent (The Campaign)
In 1988 more than one hundred arrests were made at Salamanca Market, when the Tasmanian Gay Law Reform Group defied a ban on a stall that featured petitions to decriminalise sexual activity between consenting adult males in private.
The arrests lit the spark for a campaign to change the Tasmanian law, which was the most draconian in the Western world in terms of its penalty and, by the time of its repeal, the last of its kind in Australia.
From candid interviews with the people who were there, Campion Decent has fashioned a gripping account of Tasmania's decades-long gay law reform campaign.
The Campaign traces the venomous parliamentary debates and public meetings, the individual acts of bravery and humour amidst the hurt, and the dogged march to a landmark United Nations ruling that had far-reaching repercussions in the Federal and Tasmanian Parliaments and the High Court of Australia.
Honest, raw and urgent, The Campaign won Best New Writing at the 2019 Tasmanian Theatre Awards, and chronicles a community's journey from exclusion to inclusion, from opposition to acceptance, and from hatred to embrace.
The Campaign is part of the 2020 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival.
To kick off, what show are you currently working on and what is your role in the production?
I’m currently working on The Campaign, which tells a historic and emotionally charged story about the decriminalisation of sexual activity between consenting adult males in private in Tasmania in the 1980s and 90s. At the time the law in Tasmania was the most draconian in the Western world in terms of its penalty (21 years in prison) and, by the time of its repeal, the last of its kind in Australia. I am the writer of the play.
Why do you think now is the right time to be bringing this story to the stage?
The director Matt Scholten who operates If Theatre approached me with the idea of making this play at the beginning of 2016. We spent the next two and a half years developing it and building partnerships. We were hoping to premiere the work in October 2018 in Hobart to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the first arrests at Salamanca Market (the police arrested more than a hundred LGBTI activists over a series of weeks). With the help of Playwriting Australia, Tasmanian Theatre Company, Blue Cow Theatre and Salamanca Arts Centre – and with the blessing from key stakeholders in the story – that 30th anniversary production became a reality.
What was it like to bring this story to life (again)? What has been unique about this show and your process in comparison to other shows you have worked on?
After the success of that initial season I was hopeful that an opportunity would arise to share the story more widely. Enter Midsumma Festival and Gavin Roach in Melbourne and Mardi Gras, White Box Theatre and The Seymour Centre in Sydney. I am chuffed that audiences on the mainland now have the opportunity to see a story from our own backyard that they may know little about. In terms of uniqueness, the play is largely verbatim – that is, based on interviews and archival material. From a writer’s point of view the process is arguably more resource and research intensive than a play penned entirely from imagination.
What can audiences look forward to in this show or why do you feel it is a story that they need to hear?
Real life stories don’t always come with a perfect dramatic arc but this story presents with protagonists, antagonists, conflict, turning points, reversals, a quest, tragedy and triumph. It offers a rich fabric that combines the personal and the political. It’s just a great story that stretches from the Apple Isle to the High Court of Australia via the United Nations.
What has been the most rewarding part of this show to create for you?
Meeting the actual people who wrote this story in life, from politicians like Bob Brown and Christine Milne, to LGBTQI icons like the Hon. Michael Kirby and Rodney Croome.
Why is this a production that a 2020 audience cannot miss?
We rarely see the activist experience represented on our stages. If ever there was a time that we need reminding that people can band together to drive and achieve change – that we can take on the law, church, and state to create a better world – it is now.
When first beginning a new project, what is the first part of your process?
It very much depends on the project. For The Campaign, I read about and researched the story until I was soaking in it. Then I sat around and dreamt. Then I wrote like stink.
What is a common misconception that people have about the role of a playwright?
That we somehow don’t need to eat or don’t like being credited for our work.
By the time audiences see this show on stage, what has gone into making it happen?
Conducting and transcribing twenty interviews, reading hundred of pages of Hansard and countless news reports, watching archival news footage, and distilling several hundred pages of research material into ninety minutes of theatre. Cut, shape, sift, stitch. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Do you have any opening night rituals? If so, what are they?
A couple of stiff drinks, identifying a good spot to hide and the quickest route to the exit! Opening nights are stressful for a writer even when they go well.
What is something that you take away from each show that you work on? Do you feel like you take a piece of the production with you each time?
I always think this might be my last show, so make it count. One day I will be right.
When was the turning point for you when you realised that theatre was not just a hobby but a passion? How did you go about making it your career and is there any one show that you can attribute this to?
Theatre has been in my blood for as long as I can remember. My mother was an actress and she would drag me to the ABC studios when I was a kid and I would watch her work (it was cheaper than hiring a babysitter I guess.) In the 1970s she was in a stage show with the British actress Honor Blackman – it was at a time when they imported ‘stars’ to appear in English farces and the like – and I recall going backstage at the old Theatre Royal after a matinee as a seven-year-old. I was amazed to discover that the interior of the ‘house’ I had seen on stage was, in fact, a series of flats held up by sandbags. It had all been a trick … or the magic of theatre. I was hooked from that moment on.
Across your work, is there one story, thought or theme that keeps you interested in continuing to create? What stories do you find yourself drawn to the most?
The exploration of community in some form or other features in most of my work. Not only what binds its members, especially in pursuit of a common goal or in the face of an obstacle, but also the tensions and uneasy coalitions that exist within pursuit of that goal.
What has been the highlight of your career so far and what is still on your bucket list?
Highlight: kissing Shirley MacLaine (it’s a long story). Bucket list: kissing Timothee Chalamet (never going to happen.)
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given that you would like to pass on to aspiring theatre makers?
Murder your darlings.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
What is your favourite production you have ever seen?
You’re kidding? Way too many to list one. But if you insist … Barrie Kosky’s The Lost Echo in 2006 at Sydney Theatre Company. But if you asked me next week, I would change my mind and nominate another production.
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world - where do you go?
New York (for the cheescake … and the theatre … but cheesecake first).
What is your dream show to work on?
A wordless contemporary dance piece.
What is a hobby you have beyond the theatre?
Cooking. Serious cooking.
What’s next for you after this show?
I’m moving house … aaargh!
The Campaign opens at the Seymour Centre on February 11, 2020. You can get your tickets here.