Arts / Sheehan shoots at teen stereotypes

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CANBERRA Youth Theatre’s spring production, “versions of us” is an all-Canberra affair.

Co-directed by two talented locals, Jamie Winbank and Jess Baker, it’s been developed since May with a team of actors aged 13 to 16 and the playwright herself.

That playwright is Emily Sheehan, born and bred in Canberra, a Youth Theatre member from early days and a student of theatre at Narrabundah College until she headed to the Victorian College of the Arts, where she took out a BA in acting and a masters in playwriting.

Sheehan describes 2017 as “a good year for me”, with commissions to write “versions of us” based on the cast members’ lives, and “Daisy Moon was Born this Way,” (a Lady Gaga reference) to be staged at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith during November.

“I was very lucky,” she tells “CityNews” as she prepares to go into a week’s intensive work with the cast and directors.

Since graduating, Sheehan has worked as a script reader and script assessor for Playwriting Australia, an intern with the Melbourne Theatre Company’s “Cybec Electric” program and dramaturgy intern at the National Script Workshops.

“After finishing at the VCA, my first play was given an opportunity by Playwriting Australia, fantastic people who championed my work,” she says.

And one of the directors she came into contact with was former Canberran Ian Sinclair, who was particularly encouraging. That first play, “Hell’s Canyon”, won the 2015 Rodney Seaborn Award and was shortlisted for the 2016 Patrick White Award.

So what was it about playwriting that grabbed her?

“I have always been quite a creative soul and a bit of a deep thinker,” Sheehan says.

“I started thinking about characters and what they do and then I created something from scratch… I was interested in the dynamic between two people and how that makes them act.”

Writing dialogue between two people is within her comfort zone, “but four or five people on stage at once is a real challenge,” she says.

But that’s exactly what she’s doing in “versions of us”, written around 12 actors.

“It’s a test to keep them all active, to ask what each person is doing, and to bring their energy in,” she says.

Sixteen-year-old cast member Electra Spencer, a company member since age eight, is peering over our shoulders to get a look at the new play. She is one of the 12 and has been in on the project since its earliest development.

She went to Sydney recently to perform with Youth Theatre’s touring of “Verbatim” but says this is the first real script work she’s done, as her time with the company has mostly been spent on physical theatre and self-devised plays.

Not to worry, Sheehan is familiar with this phenomenon and spent a week with the cast earlier in the year to learn “their vernacular and a sense of humour”.

It’s intended as an offbeat and non-judgemental look at as adolescent life, not stereotyped but “in the moment”. Spencer describes it as “very raw, about teenage rebellion”.

“I am not trying to teach anything, I’m just trying to get inside the feeling of being young,” Sheehan says.

By now Spencer is understandably curious as to what parts she’s going to play, since she hasn’t actually seen the finished words.

Sheehan fingers through the manuscript, reassuring Spencer that she’ll get to play the same characters she did in the early read-through. The characters don’t have names but hers will be in a science lab scene, a dressing-up scene and in what they call the “trolls scene”, the kind of trolls who inhabit the online world.

The play, Sheehan says, moves to a clear endpoint, which will see a subtle subversion of teen stereotypes.

“In the end they’re going to tread their own paths… although there’s darkness, I’m shining a light through it all,” she says.

“versions of us,” Ralph Wilson Theatre, Gorman Arts Centre, Braddon,  October 12-14. Bookings to

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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