As Sunset Strip rehearsals continue, playwright Suzie Miller discusses the play’s themes, her motivations in writing it and the thrill of watching it take shape under Anthony Skuse’s direction.
I lost a beloved aunt from breast cancer when I was 10 years old. It was not spoken about much, a tragedy that my father’s family suffered terribly over but somehow it wasn’t talked about. It frightened me, all the silence around it. Since that time I have lived with so many of my loved ones being touched by breast cancer — friends, family, colleagues, extended family, school mates, uni and law buddies, parents of my children’s friends and more. I have sat in chemo rooms and by hospital beds, had some life-changing conversations, tears and bizarrely enough some incredible laughs. I wanted to write a play that somehow reflected that living and dealing with cancer is all about us and that we just take it on board, fight the awfulness of the process, and embrace the human insights that it brings. It is predominantly a disease that touches women, but so too does it touch all those who love those women, and of course like most things in life, we don’t have a manual for how to deal with it.
I especially wanted to write a play that had two strong women characters up front and centre; they are the main story of this play. I make no apologies for the very female nature of the storytelling — how women talk, relate and move through life. Indeed I fully embrace and celebrate it. Historically playwrights do not put women as the main protagonists in their work, often without realising it. Research has shown that if you do, it is harder to have the play programmed, the gatekeepers are often men who do not relate as well to the women characters, and so these particularly female experiences do not grace the stages. There is a unique humour about women together, the way we laugh and love and get angry all at the same time. But the male characters in this play are also fundamental to the telling of the story. Everyone in Sunset Strip is confronting their fears.
Sunset Strip is also about family and how we are all so imperfect yet strangely imperfect in our own vulnerable and unique ways. I wanted to write a play that works on all stages — both large and small — and that spoke to all of us living our busy lives. That the play in its premier season is on at Griffin, so intimate, so real, so filled with hope for the future of Australian theatre, felt fitting and in keeping with the themes.
Anthony Skuse and I forged a creative relationship when Griffin partnered us up for my play Caress/Ache in 2015. He is a gentleman of sincere proportions, a delight to work with; I have been privy to this man’s wisdom, humour, fierce intelligence, theatrical talents and commitment to the work. Emma Jackson has played in many of my early works, including my first foray to the Sydney Opera House and a show we took to Edinburgh. She remains something of a muse for me and again she nails it. The other actors I am working with for the first time. Georgina Symes carries a humanity in her work that layers her character with so much that is real; Simon Lyndon takes his character of Teddy and lights up the stage; and Lex Marinos, well just having him in the room is enough, but his clarity and protection of his own character, a frail father losing his grip on reality, takes centre stage when we least expect it. I have watched as the actors have embodied these characters in a manner that has just blown my mind. They have found vulnerabilities, love, anger, faults, strengths, crazy humour and ultimately hope.
Human beings are remarkable at finding hope in the hardest and most unlikely places. Strangely it is this mixture of hope and horror that drew me to the world of this play. Because in being lost, ill, getting old, having cancer, melting down or screwing up — we are at our most human, and sometimes that’s the place where the best laughs are.
Sunset Strip is on at the Stables from 14 June – 1 July