Dickens Street: The Other

"Opening nights are dramatic, but this one takes the cake. It’s the premiere of a Latvian classic, Princess Gundega and King Bushybeard, and the star of the show goes missing. Join the immersive production of DICKENS STREET - THE OTHER and follow the trail through the Melbourne Latvian House as the ensemble struggles to make the show go on." --- from the press release

Work on this bilingual show began in early 2022, when the applied theatre company INITIUM (Riga) invited me to devise a show based on interviews with the Latvian community in Australia in order to showcase the Melbourne Latvian House. This building has housed an extraordinary community theatre ensemble, which has been going strong for 70 years, ever since the first Latvian refugees arrived. The co-producer was Melbourne's Theatre Works, a company of some renown based in vibrant St. Kilda. 

The building was full of stories and I instantly envisaged a production in which audiences had to follow one of three characters: the Boyfriend, the Standin, or the Old Timer. This meant that I had to write three plays. The story of the Old Timer them was inspired by veteran actor, Pēteris Saulītis, who had played over fifty roles with the community theatre. The other two were rooted in the tensions we detected in the diaspora community such as questions around marrying outside and tensions between new arrivals from Latvia and the old diaspora.

Each group of spectators followed a different narrative, but all of them got to tour the whole building. I peppered the production with verbatim texts collected by ethnographer Ilga Vālodze-Ābele and catalyst Brigita Stroda: the memory of being a twelve-year old escaping from war; a nostalgic conversation between two sisters; a quarrel between two teenagers about who is the more authentic Latvian. I was also inspired by an improvisation made at a summer school under the title of HOW WE GOT HERE. The kids created five tableaux: happy people dancing in independent Latvia; people hiding from bombs during WWII; refugees suffering on the passage to Australia; arrival in Australia; and once again, happy people dancing. We invited the audience to re-create these tableaux at the end of each show.

I couldn't have made this piece without the tremendous trust placed in me by the producer Ieva Niedre and without the research provided by Ilga. It was thrilling to work with artists from Latvia like designer Katrīne Neiburga and composer Jēkabs Nīmanis. A scene protesting the war in Ukraine was based on a poem I love by Ivars Šteinbergs and brought legendary punk singer Sam Sevajak of Dogs in Space renown back to the stage. It was great to work with Australian professionals, like Daniel Hillman, Jess Ciancio, and Alison M. Richards. Most of the twenty-some performers were not professionals, however, and many came to rehearsals on their day off, or after work. A loyal handful were Ukrainians.  Some community actors were extremely experienced; for others, it was their first time on stage. The ages of the actors ranged from 8 to 97.

I haven't directed my own writing in a long time, and it's always exciting to hear your own words being spoken and getting the laugh when you want it. But I was especially pleased by the more challenging scenes, the non-narrative ones. I'm thinking specifically of what happened when the audience climbed upstairs, into what we called 'the living museum.' In a dusty library, two sisters, both in their eighties, re-create a conversation they had while leafing through a photo album of shows, productions they'd been which often featured a beloved sister who had already died. In the room next door, a choir sang this conversation in a musical setting that bordered on incantation. While they sang, the audience was invited to study the field of thick photo albums set out on a long table. For many, this scene became the highlight of the show. 

The production ran from January 16-20, 2024. 

The photo from the library includes the sisters Māra Kaziņa and Valda Rubis; Natalija Neiburgs; Mara Piksons. Photos marked AD are by @AmeliaDucker

https://www.theatreworks.org.au/2024/dickens-street

Crone/Director Ieva Ozoliņa (AD)

Musician Viktors Brenners (AD)

Old Timer Pēteris Saulītis (AD)

Stand-in Paula Bloma (AD)

Boyfriend Daniel Hillman

Princess Gundega Jess Ciancio with the Musician in the background

Soprano Alison Richards (AD)

Sniedze Sandra Karlsberga and Baby Goat Alfrēds Landsbergs with the Strangler (Saulītis) in the background (AD)

Audience tableaux with ensemble members Daila Piksons and Eriks Stepanuks (AD)

Banner at the entrance featuring Crone Brigita Stroda