New play puts teenage battles in the spotlight

Laura Peppas

For most of us, the teenage years are an awkward time – there’s an uphill battle against raging hormones, a changing body and managing new responsibilities, all while struggling to fit in or be heard.

But for teens in remote communities, it’s likely they’ll face more perilous conflicts: youth homelessness, teen pregnancy and drug rates are skyrocketing, while suicide rates are reaching alarming levels in the Northern Territory in particular.

These issues will be explored in Sugarland, a new production by the Australian Theatre for Young People coming to Canberra Theatre Centre, which aims to give audiences around the country a personal understanding of what life is like growing up in remote Australia.

Playwrights Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair spent over two months in Katherine researching for the play, speaking at length to local teenagers, youth workers and teachers. It was an experience Rachael initially found “terribly confronting.”

“It was clear to me early on, that there was a correlation between the high levels of teenage homelessness and teenage pregnancy in the NT,” Rachael says.

“[Initially] I was very angry. I got on my healing high horse wanting to save the world. And then I realised the best thing I could do was tell the story of these young people as honestly as possible, with the enormous dignity and humour they have.”

Sugarland centres around Erica (played by Elena Foreman), an “RAAF brat” who is always the new girl in town and has stopped trying to fit in. Meanwhile, Nina (Dubs Yunupingu) is excelling at school and has one of the best singing voices around but needs a house to live in. The only thing Erica and Nina have in common is the music they listen to.

The play was presented back to the community of Katherine before opening at the Old City Hall Ruins as part of the Darwin Festival in August 2014.

Rachael describes presenting the production back to the community as “the scariest moment” of her life.

“The town seeing it for the first time was daunting, [but] the response was overwhelming,” she says.

“The kids laughed, adults cried, and we had a hugely positive response. The only real negative comment was when one person said ‘there is one thing wrong with it – no one else is going to get it. It’s too specific to K-town.’ That’s when I felt confident it was as authentic as possible.”


Rachael Coopes

Although Sugarland covers many of the usual teenage topics – iPhones, music, school politics – it also delves into some heavy material, in particular, a scene where the two characters are choking one another for kicks.

Rachael says she and Wayne were careful not to trivialise or cushion the issues explored in the play.

“As adults we trivialise so much of the teenage experience, even though we remember how high the stakes were for us at that time of our lives,” she says.

“It’s when our emotional worlds are formed. It’s a hugely important time. But at the same time, the world we are born into dictates what creates those stakes, and they become the daily realities of life for us – so they don’t need to be over-sentimentalised.

“Having said that, it was very important that none of these issues were glamorised. The choking game is happening every day across this country. It is a dangerous, brutal game that is killing kids and giving them brain damage. So that key scene had to be as scary and real as possible in it’s realisation to reflect the gravity of what it’s really like.”

Although male actors feature in the production, Rachael and Wayne decided to put the focus on the female leads, a decision that came from their time in Katherine.

“Ultimately, I just found the plight of young women in remote NT was the thing that tugged at me most,” Rachael says.

“If you’re a young male, and can play footy or box, there’s a way out,-if that’s what you want. For young women, I feel like there is just nothing.”

Rachael hopes the play will encourage parents to have “that essential but awkward conversation” with their teens.

“For me, this is the world our young people live in,” Rachael says.

“If we can’t reflect that in theatre and have a conversation afterwards, I don’t know where we can. There is no better place to look at tricky things, unpack them, and have difficult conversations – especially for young people. There’s a degree of separation when examining issues through story and characters, rather than it being personal, it becomes a universal discussion.”


the essentials

What: Sugarland
When: May 6 and 7
Where: The Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre
How much: Tickets from $15.50

Feature image: Tracey Schramm


Laura Peppas

Laura Peppas is HerCanberra's senior journalist and communications manager and is the Editor of Unveiled, HerCanberra's wedding magazine. She is enjoying uncovering all that Canberra has to offer, meeting some intriguing locals and working with a pretty awesome bunch of women. Laura has lived in Canberra for most of her life and when she's not writing fervently she enjoys pursuing her passion for travel, reading, online shopping and chai tea. More about the Author