THAI FOOD FOR THOUGHT

A main­stage com­mis­sion from the Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany means Dis­apol Savet­sila stands out as a young play­wright, writes Jane Al­bert

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Stage - Aus­tralian Graf­fiti

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

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