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Gateway to an underwater world: Caleb Lewis on Cathedral

Award-winning playwright Caleb Lewis returns to State Theatre Company South Australia to present his new work, Cathedral, in 2022. 

A powerful, visceral and form-busting new work, Cathedral is a thriller, a family drama and an epic journey of self-discovery. From Mount Gambier to Thailand to the North Sea, from soaring first love to shattering loss to ultimate hope, this powerful story ponders a diver’s life shaped by the ocean, and its power to both upend and heal.

Beloved Adelaide actor Nathan O’Keefe (Gaslight, Macbeth, The Comedy of Errors) returns to State Theatre Company South Australia to become the man at the centre of this riveting and suspenseful one-person show directed by rising South Australian star Shannon Rush (Limit).

We spoke to Caleb about the inspiration for Cathedral, from underwater worlds and ancient Mayan myths, to diving the Limestone Coast in Mount Gambier. 

What inspired you to write Cathedral?

Cathedral is directly inspired by the unique geography of South Australia’s Limestone coast and the vast system of underwater caves that extends like a latticework beneath the region.  The play is also inspired by the many divers who have explored this hidden world, many whom never returned.  My dad is an ex dive instructor and I still remember visiting the ponds – where the play is set –  as a kid, and waiting on the jetty with my sister, both of us not knowing if Dad would ever come back.

What does the “cathedral” itself refer to in this work?

The cathedral is a giant underwater cavern existing underneath the ponds.  The space is called this because of its vast limestone walls, and the sense of awe it inspires.

Cathedral spans locations as distinct as the Limestone Coast and Thailand. What is your connection to these places and why do they feature in this story? 

As far as I am aware, the Limestone coast has one other equivalent, in Mexico, where the many sinkholes and cenotes formed the centre of Mayan culture.  The Mayans understood these sinkholes as gateways to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. Once I learned that, it was impossible not to look at the sinkholes back home in a new light.

A second pivotal scene in the play is set in Thailand, as a place where divers from around the world congregate.  In another life I would have liked to have done what Clay does and spend a year or so there teaching diving myself!  The play is also set in the world of commercial diving, where I spent a bit of time years ago, while working in Dubai as a trainer in firefighting and search and rescue onboard oil rigs.  I think I’m the only Australian playwright also qualified in underwater helicopter escape!

Where are you based now and what connection do you have to your natural environment?

I’m currently based in Queensland, though Adelaide is home.  When I’m not writing, there’s nothing I like better than going on long distance walks.  I have hiked the Black Forest in Germany, where the Brothers Grimm gathered all their folk tales; and the Kumano Kodo which is an ancient pilgrimage route in Japan.  Next year I’d like to have a go at South Australia’s own Heysen trail.

In each location visited in Cathedral, water is the defining element. Tell us about how water connects with main character Clay’s emotional landscape.

Life on Earth began in the water, as do all our lives inside the womb.  For me the water has always been a place of great peace but also potential danger. It’s a realm of uncertainty, where ideas we take for granted become slippery and hard to hold on to. Clay is a man who tends to push past trauma beneath the surface – but it’s still there, only hidden, like a dangerous reef.

How will lighting and sound transport audiences to an immersive underwater experience?

Cathedral is above all an act of storytelling.  Nathan is an accomplished actor and I’m thrilled to have him.  He’ll also be assisted by a dynamic lighting and sound design to help slip the audience into the water with him.  I think sound in particular is underexploited in theatre as it’s such an effective vehicle for conjuring images and worlds that feel exceptionally real.

What is your process for writing a play?

I start every play with an idea: some grit or grain around which the script starts to coalesce.  It might be a premise or a question or even an image.  Then comes the research which always opens up new avenues to explore.  From there it’s a process of getting the clay on the wheel and sculpting it into shape, draft by draft.

Cathedral is State Theatre’s Education show for 2022. How did you approach writing for a young audience, and what themes do you think will resonate with students?

When writing Cathedral, I was interested in our most fundamental relationship, the one with our parents, and how this shapes us, for better or worse, into who we become.  Clay is haunted by his mother’s disappearance.  If he is to ever move on, he is going to have to confront his past and make some sort of peace with it.  For Clay this means spending time at the bottom of a very dark hole, which metaphorically, is something I think we can all relate to.  The trick is to never forget the light!

Why is it important for young people to experience the theatre?

Unlike a book which can be picked up at any time, or a film which can be paused, or a game which can be saved, theatre only exists in the moment of performance and that’s something that can only be accomplished when the actors and audience are in the same space, breathing the same air, sharing this communal act of make-believe.  I think there is something magical about that.  Theatre is the most fragile of spells.  It can take us to other worlds and show us things we’ve never dreamed of, but only for an hour or two, and then we return to our own world, hopefully a little happier or sadder, or wiser, but always changed.

Cathedral is on at the Space Theatre in Adelaide from 6 – 22 May 2022, followed by a regional tour of South Australia including Port Pirie, Renmark, Port Lincoln, Port August and Mount Gambier. 

Check out the photo gallery below for some of Caleb’s inspiration for Cathedral. Photos are of The Ponds, Mount Gambier, and a younger Caleb Lewis as a safety trainer on an oil rig in Dubai. Images supplied by Caleb Lewis.