THAI FOOD FOR THOUGHT
A mainstage commission from the Sydney Theatre Company means Disapol Savetsila stands out as a young playwright, writes Jane Albert
There have been times in Disapol Savetsila’s young life when he has stood out where he would much rather have blended in. As a first-generation Australian, attending high school in country NSW meant people would regularly confuse him with the school’s only other Asian male. This was despite the fact that, unlike Savetsila, the other student wasn’t Thai, didn’t wear glasses, and in fact looked nothing like him.
On other occasions he was goaded by bored teenagers who inevitably decided he was Chinese and must therefore know how to fight. He says it’s pure luck he has never had to prove them wrong.
Now Savetsila is again standing out from the crowd, but this time for a truly remarkable reason: he is the youngest playwright commissioned by the Sydney Theatre Company for a mainstage season. Australian Graffiti also happens to be his first full-length play.
Sitting in the STC’s harbourside Walsh Bay headquarters, the polite and delightfully dry 23year-old proves entertaining company. Introducing himself by his nickname, Oakkie — Disapol is a formal Thai name he rarely uses — he still seems mildly perplexed by the path that led him here. What began as an eleventh hour application by the then 19-year-old to the Lotus Asian-Australian Playwriting project, an initiative between Playwriting Australia and Contemporary Asian Australian Performance, was ultimately accepted by the STC’s developmental Rough Draft program. Working with STC literary manager Polly Rowe and director Paige Rattray, Savetsila was astonished when he was commissioned to develop his play into a mainstage work. “I was kind of stunned when they said they were going to program me, I didn’t have a response. I just bounced everywhere I walked, and screamed into several pillows.”
The result is the humorous and touching Australian Graffiti. Describing it as “magical realism”, Savetsila says the play depicts a family of Thai restaurateurs who migrate further and further inland until they land in a mysterious town where they have trouble attracting a single customer. When the chef dies suddenly, the group is faced with a conundrum: who will cook their food? Why does Thai graffiti keep mysteriously appearing on the church, no matter how many times the locals wash it off? And will Thai food ever make it big in this town?
If the story sounds somewhat offbeat it is no more so than Savetsila’s own, on which the play is loosely based. Savetsila and his older brother started life on Sydney’s lower north shore near the Thai restaurant where their parents met and fell in love. Both had migrated from Thailand in search of a new life, although beyond that the details are sparse.
His father died when Savetsila was only two months old, leaving his mother to raise the children on her own. She ultimately relocated to the central west district of Bathurst where she continued to manage Thai restaurants and where she remains to this day.
Aged 12, Savetsila was ready for a change and thrived on the new experience and new friends he made. Were there many other Thai people in Bathurst? “Nooo,” he says pointedly. Did it ever bother him, being in a minority? “It was only worrying a few times. The majority of times it’s not something you think about or notice. But maybe two or three times while I was there I kind of felt threatened. And I do think being Asian had something to do with that.”
Nevertheless he was a content teen, and one who relished the chance to explore the broader world through theatre whenever a company visited his school. “When a company like Bell Shakespeare came I would always be extremely invested. There’s something about seeing live actors in a space. I think shows are fantastic at creating empathy,” he says.
Although he had a voracious appetite for books — fantasy was a favourite genre — he didn’t start writing until he began a creative writing undergraduate degree at the University of Wollongong, co-founding amateur theatre company Theatre Versus Everything at the same time. “Writing kind of felt right. It’s the only thing I ever had any aptitude for,” he says in his self-deprecating way.
Nevertheless the topic of Australian Graffiti is timely and compelling, exploring as it does the migrant experience and often misunderstood challenges of assimilation. As Savetsila’s mother prepares to hand the restaurant business to son Eakkie, her younger son worries about her future. “She says all she’s going to do is go on YouTube. I’ve been trying to find hobbies for her but it hasn’t been very successful. In Sydney we used to go to a Thai temple but in Bathurst there’s nothing of the sort. If you’re not connected to the community, it’s harder.”
Although Savetsila is now forging his own path and creating his own identity in Sydney, it is a situation he is keenly aware of, and one he hopes his play will bring to life
“The core of Australian Graffiti is very much based on my experiences,” he says. “Trying to explore that strange feeling of isolation in terms of growing up Asian-Australian where you kind of have to occupy that hyphen in between, and figure out who you are.”
Savetsila is pleased to see growing support for Asian-Australian stories — three other plays that emerged from the Lotus project have had commercial productions, La Boite’s Single Asian Female and Merlynn Tong’s Blue Bones at the Brisbane Powerhouse among them — and is hopeful the empathy he discovered through theatre will be triggered in others.
“Just trying to understand what sorts of things might drive people to leave their homes and families to come here and make money, to see there’s more to it than greed. It’s a standard human response, that line ‘ the immigrants are going to take our jobs’, but to take that point of view you have to dehumanise them. Even if people don’t say it, I think it’s kind of there,” he says, before adding, “But I also hope people are going to come and have a good time.”
The process of working with Rowe and Rattray has been enlightening and humbling; but while Savetsila is working with Playwriting Australia on developing other plays, putting to the test “that thing where they say everyone has only one book in them”, his next step is in fact to take a step back.
“As great as it is to have been part of this huge show, I kind of want to go back, just for a bit, to small experimental theatre with Theatre Versus Everything. Because it’s really fun to go with your friends to a festival, see if you can make the transition from uni theatre to independent, a low-pressure environment. just to see if stuff works.”
Before he does that, though, he has one important task: to introduce his family to the theatre, and the world of Australian Graffiti. “My family definitely aren’t theatregoers. When I told Mum, ‘Hey, I got a show in the Sydney Theatre Company’, she said, ‘OK, great, but when are you graduating?’ ” he laughs. “I only found out recently they’re going to come, which is surprising, but the only night the restaurant closes is Monday. Maybe we’ll go on rotation, so I’ll go to Bathurst and help out while they come to the show. That would be pretty fun.”
IF THE STORY SOUNDS SOMEWHAT OFFBEAT IT IS NO MORE SO THAN SAVETSILA’S OWN
opens on July 13 at Wharf 2 Theatre, Sydney, and runs until August 12.
Disapol Savetsila at the Sydney Theatre Company