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The unapologetic intimacy of theatre

Finegan Kruckemeyer. Photo by Sia Duff.

Finegan Kruckemeyer is one of the most internationally produced living playwrights working in Australia today. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic caused the theatres all over the world to halt their performances, 18 of Finegan’s plays were produced over 29 seasons in eight countries.

While many of Finegan’s plays have been aimed at young people, his recent commission for State Theatre Company South Australia aimed to capture the imagination of an older audience. The Company witnessed the birth of Hibernation – from the very first spark of an idea to its premiere season at the Dunstan Playhouse from 13-28 August, 2021.

We spoke to Finegan about his passion for theatre, his writing process and the ideas behind Hibernation.

Why do you choose to tell stories through theatre?
As an audience member, and as a worker in theatre, I have always loved the potential for connection that theatre provides. Theatre has an unapologetic intimacy and closeness; this sense of it being a conversation between those who are presenting the artwork and those who are receiving it. I love that.

I also love reading books and feeling like I’m being told a story. But for me, there’s no way to convey back the excitement I’m feeling in a particular moment when I’m reading a book. With theatre, although you’re sitting in the darkness, you can feel the energy in a room, and you can feel when the audience is giving just as much as the performers are. It feels like a very democratic and respectful art form in that way. It’s this acknowledgement that we’re all humans – whether we’re choosing to sit in the audience on this day, or to stand on the stage. In the theatre, we are all interested and invested in the exercise of what makes people tick. I find that to be quite a beautiful thing.

What is your process for writing a play?
I love the sense of a writing system that’s known and familiar. My son goes off to school, my wife goes to work, so I write in those same hours. I’m literally a clock-on, clock-off, 9am-3pm, kind of person. I drop my son to school, I write, I do the school pick-up and I live my bigger life around that.

In my writing hours, I think it’s important to start in a place that feels comfortable and familiar. I like to be in an office I know, sitting at a desk I know, with a timeline that I know. Then I wait for that lovely moment of forgetting. You start with what you know, and then it disappears, and you wake up minutes or hours later and a monologue has come into existence. I know it sounds a bit silly but it’s the magic trick that I engage with every time – and I’ve never found out how that magic trick works. I never want to find out how it works. I just love that sense of a story coming into being because the time feels right to write it or because that character feels they need to say that thing.

What sparked the central idea behind Hibernation?
This one came to be in a really different way for most of my shows, where I sit down and deliberate on what I might write about. This was literally one of those epiphanous moments of waking up from bed in the middle of the night with a sense of a fairly well mapped-out story, and quickly trying to capture that in some way. Then the next morning, sending it off to Mitchell. It became a chat with State Theatre Company South Australia pretty quickly. But yeah, that moment, that first spark was ridiculous. It just fell into my head.

Initially, the themes and the impetus behind the work were environmental, they were about sustainability. I was interested in how the planet can continue and in what state that occurs. I wanted to explore ideas about equivalence and fairness, in terms of what people in different parts of the world inherit. But it quickly became about people – as I find often happens with art, in whatever medium. Really, this play is a study of humans. While I started with these themes and things that I believe in strongly, it became an exercise in studying how different people respond to a problem. Do they choose to throw themselves back into what they knew? Or do they choose to create something – a new version of themselves, their world or their community? That became, for me, the more honest study – a study of people and the way that we navigate our lives.

I think there’s a symmetry in terms of the things that I have been thinking about – thoughts about the planet, about the world and about being a father. I find myself thinking about what my kid will bear witness to or inherit in the future. I think those are ideas and concepts that we’re all ruminating on in different ways at the moment. For me, it felt like it was the right time to tell this story.

You wrote Hibernation prior to the start of the COVID-19 crisis. Has the pandemic been integrated into the work or changed the way you think about the play?
I am reticent to do zeitgeisty work or to tell a story that feels too wedded to the particular moment in which I’m creating it. My hope is always that the story will endure beyond that moment; even that it will feel like it has existed previously. A story is only a story for as long as people care about it.

The kernel of thought that led to Hibernation obviously came from things I was thinking about at the time – and then that time changed. Strangely, the world started to seem like it was mirroring aspects of the story. When this happened, Director Mitchell Butel and I talked about it. Dramaturgically, it felt like it would be it would be flippant not to acknowledge, in some small way, this thing that’s that has occurred and that we’re still living with. But I also wanted to show that the themes are bigger than this moment, and that humans have more resilience than this moment. I want this story to be one that could be told at a point in the future, or in the past, and might still have another relevance or have another type of relevance. We work in metaphor a lot in theatre. We often allude to things that exist in the world without naming them too heavily, and this play is a continuation of that exercise.

Within the play, we hear people speak about the ‘rules’ or the world and we see how they fit with the laws of nature. Could you talk about how these two elements are at work in Hibernation?
The play is about power dynamics. It’s about policy at a political level and actions at an individual or communal level. My character studies and plays are about how we adhere to the moment and place we exist in, where we come from or how we choose to chart our own course. For me, that conundrum sits at the centre of a lot of lives; it sits at the core of what it means to be human. It’s this sense of the past, present and future. We’ve all been shaped by a particular environment and community and family, each trying to instill their values systems in us. We take these things on, for better or worse. Eventually, one reaches a point – probably at about the age of a lot of students who will see this show – where you start acknowledging the importance and influence of these values. But at the same time, you also acknowledge the person you are becoming – the values that you deem important and the places you want these values to take you in life. I find this cusp really interesting – it’s so potent and powerful. That’s why I often write plays for young people or with them in mind.

Hibernation speaks about that moment between being shaped and shaping oneself. The play draws a line where characters think of themselves in terms of ‘before’ and ‘after’ hibernation. Even if the characters in this play aren’t teenagers, they’re assessing who they are within society, who they want to be, and how to navigate the space in between.

The play looks at the individual sacrifices that people are asked to make for the ‘greater good’ and how sacrifices are managed personally, politically and globally. Could you talk about the idea of sacrifice within the play?
It’s about how we triage that level of sacrifice. How do we decide what will fall by the wayside and what we will commit to for a better world, a better self, a better relationship, a better environment or a better future? I think every character is scrutinising that decision. I like that there’s no definitive answer in that.

The play draws an equivalency between a global population of a few billion choosing to sacrifice one year and a man and a woman choosing to sacrifice a previous relationship so they can fall in love. Each of these sacrifices can feel as relevant as the other. I think that’s how we exist as humans, too. On one hand, we exist on this macro scale: we are buffeted by everything happening in the world and we make choices about what we sacrifice ourselves to and what we push back against. Then, as individuals, we make intimate, personal decisions about what we’re going to honor and what we’re going to say goodbye to.

This production had huge interest from high school teachers – all of the school performances sold out and there were also a number of school groups who attended general season performances. What did you hope the experience of Hibernation would be for young audiences?
I hope audiences feel empowered, particularly the young audiences. This play is written about the future – something that arguable belongs to young people more than it does to me. I was very interested in how young audiences would take ownership of that.

If students were coming from a theatre background or were interested in theatre-making, I hope they felt empowered to tell their own stories, to think about the themes, to determine what drives them to tell stories, or to enact stories in whatever method they see fit. For me, it’s about empowering every individual to take something from the show – whether its pushing back against what they see, choosing to go their own way, or leaning into what they see. I think any of these reactions is right. While it’s about the audience sitting there in a particular moment of time, it’s also about whatever they do next.

State Theatre Company South Australia currently has a number of playwrights under commission. The creation and writing of these works is supported by the members of our wonderful Commissioning Collective. To find out more about the Commissioning Collective and how you can support these works, please click here.