Friday 25 May 2012

High School Hell: Interview by Roslyn Helper, Brag

[THEATRE: Review] Crushed

High School Hell

By Roslyn Helper

Melita Rowston began writing plays at art school. “I actually started out as a painter,” she tells me. “I went to the Victorian College of the Arts, and started hanging out with actors and seeing a lot of plays; I wanted to tell stories in my paintings, but I realised I could tell better, more detailed stories if I put them on stage.” Over a decade later, Rowston has carved out a reputation for writing theatre with a distinctly Australian voice – and Crushed, playing at New Theatre this month, is no exception.
Crushed is set in a fictional NSW bayside town, up past the Northern Beaches. It’s 1998, and Susie, the most popular girl in school, is having her 16th birthday. To celebrate, a group of high-school friends have gathered in the scrublands on the side of town – “You know, where you go and listen to rock music and drink warm beer,” says Rowston. That night, Susie is abducted from her bed and never found.

Fast-forward 22 years, and workmen excavating the same scrubland uncover the Poison T-shirt Susie was last seen wearing – slashed and covered in blood. The ensuing criminal investigation brings three friends – her best friend, her boyfriend and the town rebel – back together, to confront their memories of a night they’d hoped to leave buried in their adolescence forever. “It’s what I call a high-school reunion from hell,” Rowston quips.

It’s a story inspired by Rowston’s own experiences growing up in a small town on the Victorian coast. “Where I grew up, a little girl was abducted from her bed in the middle of the night and never found. I was a toddler at the time, and it was literally two blocks away – my mum still talks about it,” she says. As she researched the story, however, Rowston quickly realised that the ‘missing child’ theme runs a rich vein through Australian history and culture. “In the 1980s, we had the highest rate of child abduction in the world,” she tells me.

Rowston says the biggest challenge with Crushed was constructing a believable narrative arc. “I think the struggle was the suspense plot – the murder mystery – because it’s so detailed with the clues and the evidence. It was that struggle of making it believable and telling the characters’ relationship stories as well,” she explains. In the end, she drew heavily from her own past to create her characters. “They’re all really angry, but I love them; and the lead is a mixture of a couple of girls I went to high-school with, who I’m still friends with on Facebook”.

Ahead of the production at New Theatre, Rowston handed over her story to director Lucinda Gleeson, with whom she bonded over the play’s social milieu. “Lucinda calls herself a Canberra bogan, and grew up in a more Canberra-like town,” Rowston explains, “and she’s really connected with [Crushed], because just before we got into rehearsals, she started reconnecting with her high-school friends as well. She’s just like, ‘This is too close to home, I know these people; I know this world’. So that’s been really great.”

On her hopes for the upcoming production, Rowston says, “I like it when people have extreme reactions to my work. I’ve gotten to the point where I know that could also include extreme hate, but yeah… feeling something really resonant is what matters.”

What: Crushed by Melita Rowston
Where: New Theatre / 542 King St, Newtown
When: May 16 – June 9

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