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In Conversation with Darby Turnbull

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

"There’s something so specifically queer about not being able to resist making a joke in the wake of tragedy, to take control of a situation with levity. I distinctly enjoy the bitter absurdities of the mundane and wanted to honour them in this piece." Writer Darby Turnbull speaks with us about their play 'Dad Jeans' arriving at Explosives Factory 29 March for a limited season.

Q: What inspired you to write this tragic comedy about gay men in the 21st century? A: I wanted to write an inverse of a story I’d seen many times before; it’s a kitchen sink drama about the reckoning of a relationship in (almost) real time but make it queer and see what changes. I came of age in a time when there was and is a real insistence that there isn’t a difference between queer and straight people, which I think is absurd. We have a history, we have roots and they inform how we move through the world when we’re not just trying to get on with the business of just being alive. This is a story about two men who are very committed to being the best versions of themselves and coming up short in their own eyes. The divisions among queer people in terms of priorities and privilege are real and vital and I struggle with the gross inequities when it comes to social mobility and the willingness of so many queer people to align themselves with people who would oppress them in exchange for a taste of their power. And they’re also engaging with this whilst in the depths of grief. There’s something so specifically queer about not being able to resist making a joke in the wake of tragedy, to take control of a situation with levity. I distinctly enjoy the bitter absurdities of the mundane and wanted to honour them in this piece. Dad Jeans has had three iterations. A short 15 minute version presented as part of Play 6 in 2019, a full length version in 2021 and finally this new version. The first two were directed by Bruce Langdon and featured David Kerr as Ralph and Sean Paisley-Collins as Harry who were all instrumental in developing the piece and inspiring me to expand it. In this iteration I was specifically interested in exploring a new dynamic for Harry and Ralph outside of two white, cis men both aged 30. There was a certain tragedy in having such a monumental thing happen to two people who are so young but pushing them towards middle age (which was my original vision) has taken it in a new and potent direction. Q: What are some key themes you wanted to explore in this work? A: I used to joke that I just wanted to write the ‘anti Modern Family’. The emphasis in mainstream media around queer people, especially cis men has been overwhelmingly centred on marriage and children as a means of achieving personal fulfilment and social respectability. Like the fairy tale formula, what comes next? How do they feel about that? I was very interested in exploring the dynamics of a relationship after a traumatic event and how they come to it as individuals when they’ve become so used to thinking of themselves as a pair. In this iteration I very specifically chose to set the play in 2017 on the eve of the marriage equality plebiscite and incorporate the very specific feelings of anger, ruefulness and doubts that came with it. This was what we were being told was going to the apex of queer rights? How do these two people care for themselves and their own trauma, when they’re so acutely aware of their place in history. Like duel perspectives of shared experiences it can so be infuriating being in conflict with the narratives around personal and political liberation; being inundated with what you’re told your experience is versus what you’re actually experiencing. What of the ‘Safe schools initiative’? What about refugee’s rights to seek asylum? Why is and was marriage and children prioritised? How do you pursue personal fulfilment and disappointment alongside the wider forces of the world around you? How are you ok with not having an answer?

Q: What has been a highlight of the rehearsal process so far? A: It’s been fascinating revisiting this material after two years and exploring it from a new perspective based on how the dynamics have changed with the casting of Jalen and Tim. When we were auditioning no two applicants came in with the same interpretation which was thrilling but also made the decision incredibly difficult. Jalen especially has been so kind in sharing some insight into recontextualising the role that aligns with his identity as a trans masc Cantonese performer. It wasn’t just a matter of casting someone into a role as written I’m very interested in the specific ways that the intersectional parts of our identities inform our interactions. The most wonderful moment for me is when I’m engaging with what the creatives are bringing that I almost forget I wrote the words they’re saying.

Q: What can you tell us about the cast and creative team you have assembled? A: It’s such a humbling experience having artists you have so much reverence for be so generous with their time and talent. Tim Constantine, who’s playing Harry is someone whose work I’ve been a huge fan of for the last decade having seen him take on some of the great male roles in the western theatrical canon I feel like I’m in exceptional company. I saw Jalen Ong who’s playing Harry in Antipodes and she would stand like this and was so struck by his presence and sensitivity and he’s fast becoming a highly respected and in demand performer. It’s been a thrill to adapt the text to these two incredible performers talents and personalities. Finally, having someone of Marcel Dorney’s prolific talent and experience leading this production with so much empathy and insight is so meaningful.

Q: If you could invite anyone to Dad Jeans, who would it be? A: Well, the play starts with being openly derisive of Liberal MP Tim Wilson and his proposal to his husband, so I’m torn between wanting to see him react to being called a traitor and hypocrite in real time and wanting to avoid an awkward interaction. Sarah Schulman is a writer and activist whose work Conflict is not abuse, Gentrification of the mind and Ties that bind: familial homophobia and its consequences to name a few have been hugely impactful in finding a language for my feelings, but then again meeting your heroes is intimidating because what if they don’t like you? The invitation to Dad Jeans is people who want to engage with tough feelings around grief and the less tangible parts of themselves that are exposed when they’re confronted with a turning point in their lives. And invitation is to project those feelings onto a very specific relationship dynamic and situation that you may have seen before but not necessarily in this iteration.

Dad Jeans by DL Turnbull 29 March - 8 April | Explosives Factory BOOK HERE


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