In Italy, during the middle of the fourteenth century, five years after the black death had ravaged the nation, author Giovanni Boccaccio published The Decameron; a collection of novellas featuring 100 stories told by seven women and three men who, without UberEats or Netflix, needed to find other ways to pass the time while forced to bunker down in quarantine in an isolated Florentine villa.
Almost seven hundred years later, humanity is locked down again and in urgent need of narratives which can guide us towards understanding and out of existential despair. State Theatre Company SA and ActNow Theatre’s modernised Decameron 2.0, the brainchild of playwright Emily Steel and recipient of a SA Government COVID-19 Arts Grant, will deliver weekly nutritious entertainment to a theatre-starved populace, while gainfully employing over 30 creative professionals. We speak to resident director Anthony Nicola about this innovative and timely work.
“More than ever, this is a time where I feel it is the artist’s duty to force audiences to confront our reality, to confront their place within it, to confront the damage we have all caused and to actively find ways that we can work together to make our reality one we don’t have to escape from.”– Anthony Nicola, Director Decameron 2.0
You have channelled your teenage political passion into your artistic career. Do you see Decameron 2.0, a work that will respond to a world in flux, a world on fire, as the perfect vessel for focusing the conversation and facilitating changes in perspective?
I honestly don’t know what to make of Decameron 2.0 yet! That’s part of the fun of the project. In response to the original text, the hope is that we end up with 100 monologues from the perspective of 100 new characters, and that the pieces range from the laugh-out-loud to the intensely emotional to the unabashedly political. The hope is that these 100 characters come to form a stunning mosaic of South Australia. It’s easier to think of Decameron 2.0 as stories written in the time of the pandemic, rather than stories that are literally about the pandemic. So I guess (at this point!) I see Decameron 2.0 as having the potential to spark hundreds of conversations about hundreds of different topics. It’s not focusing on the conversation, but rather it’s breaking the conversation down into 100 smaller conversations so we’re able to amplify and more rigorously investigate all the complexities and nuances of our world today. And hopefully have some funny stories about cats along the way too….
As a child you created whole worlds in your head. Given the tumult in the world now, how important do you think it is to give audiences other, potentially more hopeful, worlds to escape into?
Art can be a great escape! But I actually don’t think this is the time to escape from our world. More than ever, this is a time where I feel it is the artist’s duty to force audiences to confront our reality, to confront their place within it, to confront the damage we have all caused and to actively find ways that we can work together to make our reality one we don’t have to escape from.
Do you anticipate that the cast and crew of Decameron 2.0 will be easier to work with than your younger cousins, who you tried to create childhood theatrical works with when growing up? Can you tell us a little more about the team and the innovative creative process for this project?
Yes! The other artists involved on this project have been beautiful to collaborate with, particularly my co-supervising director Yasmin Gurreeboo. For ten weeks, we give the writers a provocation inspired by the original text, and then they have 24 hours to write a monologue based around that theme. Our core writing team consists of Ben Brooker, Sally Hardy, Alexis West, Emily Steel, and Alex Vickery-Howe. The rest of the writing team is comprised from a rolling list of independent SA writers and emerging artists from ActNow’s creation groups. Then, once the monologues have been submitted, me and Yasmin assign each monologue a director and an actor, and the monologues are then filmed in the current STCSA rehearsal space, Wigg and Son. And lastly, once the ten monologues have been filmed, they’re edited together and posted online. Every. Single. Week. It’s a massive undertaking but so, so much fun!
Your first State Theatre moment, Geordie Brookman’s The Seagull, shattered your conceptions of what theatre can be. Do you hope this project will have a similar impact on audiences?
The hope is that as the weeks go on we’re able to build an audience for each weekly instalment. We’re churning out hours of original content here, and that in itself is thrilling. It might not completely shatter conceptions of what theatre can be, but it definitely has the potential to shatter audiences’ conceptions of what theatre can be during this pandemic. Emily Steel lost work due to COVID-19, and out of her isolation she had the original idea for this project; it was innovative, but also really scary. We need more thinking like that!
The pandemic has obviously unleashed carnage on the performing arts industry but also forced adaptation and innovation. What do you think the industry needs to survive this crisis?
We can’t fight the times. Theatre might not be what it once was for a while, and we’re gonna have to be okay with that. We have to keep talking to each other, listening to each other and learning from each other. We can’t walk into a rehearsal room yet, and when we can we’re not sure entirely what they’re going to look like, but what we can do is continue telling stories, and within that story share a pocket of wisdom, or horror, or even love. Decameron 2.0 promises to do just that.
The first Decameron 2.0 video will be online in July. Before then, State Theatre Company South Australia will be streaming Elena Carapetis’ 2018 hit The Gods Of Strangers from 22 June.