Rhonda is in Therapy

Rhonda is in TherapyI spent three days in Melbourne last week—something I needed to recharge and inspire me after the past three months of un-fun uncertainty and ahead of Tuesday’s widely expected Queensland budgetary hack job. It was exactly what I needed—budget or no budget, and be it writing, playwriting, or all manner of other arts practices, Melbourne just ‘does’ arts.

My trip was prompted by (bias alert) the opening of a play my sister’s currently in. Called Rhonda is in Therapy, it’s a four-person play written by playwright Bridgette Burton that examines a mother’s grief, guilt, and loneliness in the aftermath of her child’s death.

It’s dark subject matter, but incredibly compelling, and there was a buzz in the air in both the theatre where it was performed and the streets outside where laneway pubs and restaurants bustled and AFL fans hustled against the biting, wintery Melbourne weather to see their teams play football finals. In Melbourne, unlike in Queensland (I noted with plenty of envy), arts and sport abut each other effortlessly.

In Rhonda is in Therapy, we meet the Rhonda of the title (played by my sister, Louise Crawford) as she visits her new therapist (Kelly Nash). Rhonda’s specific aim is to understand why she’s started an affair with a student (played by the eminently attractive Jamieson Caldwell*) while her dutiful husband (Ben Grant) tries to hold things together at home.

The script (and its execution) is stellar, something of keen interest to me not just as a writer but as someone who is necessarily fascinated with what makes successful works of art, be they plays, TV series, films, books, or visual art. I’ve had many, many discussions in recent times about how a good script sets up a good show—without it, you can add all the big-budget special effects in the world and you’d only be (to be crass) polishing a turd.

The evidently talented Burton created the script with some help from the R E Ross Trust Playwrights Script Development Award (get outta here—funding for the arts!). I was impressed by her ability to expose both the rawness and the humour of the situation—often in quick, rollercoaster succession. I knew Rhonda is in Therapy was going to be a challenging play, but I was surprised at how often it both made me laugh and then almost immediately tear up and sniffle.

That and how the quality writing and the assured performances enabled the show to be staged with an austere but not sparse set (as a writer, I so often bring things to life in my head, it doesn’t often occur to me what they’ll look like brought to life on the stage).

The set was laid out in triangular formation, potentially connoting the love triangle—two chairs denoting the therapist’s office, a couch denoting Rhonda’s home, and a desk and two chairs contained within a floor-to-ceiling skeleton of walls that also gave the impression of cage bars.

Continuing the Melbourne-does-arts-well theme, it was fitting that Rhonda is in Therapy is playing out in fortyfivedownstairs, a not-for-profit theatre space that used to be a factory of sorts—all exposed brick, iconic windows, and exuding authenticity and history.

The theatre’s in the basement and, as you descend the stairs, you can also stop off at packed, pumping galleries on other levels. I’ll not deny that I was simultaneously inspired and despairing. What would it take for Queensland to reach the same vibe and level of arts support? Particularly in terms of writing? Our work isn’t location-specific—as long as we have pen or laptop, we can write anywhere.

Brisbane artists traditionally flee head to Melbourne to pursue their arts practice, something I both understand and am attempting to resist. Would Brisbane’s creative industries be pumping in the same way that Melbourne’s are if those artists stayed here? Or is the climate too tropical and Melbourne’s inclement, introversion-inspiring weather the necessary ingredient for groundbreaking creative work?

If you’re in Melbourne or plan on heading to Melbourne in the next few weeks, I’d highly recommend Rhonda is in Therapy (and not just because my sister’s in it). I’m still mulling over the play’s themes and nuances specifically and the rich arts culture in Melbourne more generally.

Budget or no budget, writing, playwriting, and all the arts practices in between, what do we need to do in Queensland to achieve the same?

*There was a hilarious moment the night I attended the play when Rhonda tells her young lover that she’s heading home to her husband. A middle-aged woman in the front row who clearly thought Caldwell was fairly good looking, involuntarily let her inside voice out with the surprised, slightly outraged: ‘What? No!’