Australia — In the theatre a familiar smoke hangs thick in the air and the backdrop is a shady wasteland of burnt out mountain gums.
It is a scene that is familiar to anyone who lived in North East Victoria and Gippsland in early 2003. Its also the setting for the new Hothouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company co production of Embers.
On January 7 and 8 of that year dry lightning strikes started 59 fires that eventually burnt out 1.1 million hectares of land.
Embers tells that story through the voices of 75 locals.
The words used by the actors are actual anecdotes and comments collected by Sydney playwright Campion Descent.
Campion Descent and Upper Hume Community Health Service rural recovery support worker Les Hume travelled 7000 km through the North East and Gippsland interviewing 75 locals to create the text. It was something that we wanted to do for the community for them to be able to tell their stories, says Hume. It was hoped the process of collecting the stories would be cathartic on two fronts that the load would be shared and the stories handed on in the play Embers. The people from these communities endured a lot of hardships but they have also expressed a lot of tenacity, endurance, resilience and the strength of what it is to be Australian in some of these remote places. Their stories tell that very clearly.
Beechworth Rural CFA Captain Keith Harms was interviewed for the script. His deeply personal story of leading the firefight in the historic town with an injured ankle is featured in the play. After attending a preview performance he said They’ve actually brought back a lot of emotion that actually happened that night. I hope people are still aware of this fire and what fire can actually do. This play is actually bringing back to us how much fire can actually damage people and what the feelings and heartaches and everything that we’ve gone through.”
Tangambalanga resident Christine Walker was unsure how it would be watching an actor portray her in the play, It was a bit unreal seeing someone else playing you it was great I enjoyed it. The performance also triggered many memories for Walker you never forget about that time and always hope this will never happen to us again.”
The staging of the play completes the three year journey for Les Hume in his work for me it’s a combination of the whole process to do with the rural recovery and to see it tonight performed in front of people who contributed to the stories to meet them again tonight is fantastic.”
Embers attempts to portray the complexity of the fires that lasted for two months. Hume says it does that well, its very balanced, it covers right across the board from all the firefighting agencies and the emergency services involved, the people in the community, the farmers, the businesses, people who lived in towns or in the country. It tells that story of the whole community context. It will go down in history and what a way to have it recorded in a verbatim play.
Wooragee actor John Walker is the sole local in the ensemble cast of seven. He had a first hand experience of the fires when his own property was threatened for a time during the Eldorado fire.
It’s pretty humbling experience playing these people because I think theyre extraordinary people. It’s a bit of a privilege and an honour to take on the role and try and get.
The writer hasn’t doctored them in anyway or interpreted them in anyway theyre exact words. It makes for very powerful pieces because it makes it very real because it is real, and it makes it very truthful because its all about truth.