What might happen if a global search for the next big thing on the silver screen came to a passionate group of neurodiverse artists in the Illawarra?
We’re about to find out, thanks to the latest production by Merrigong’s company of professional actors, The Strangeways Ensemble.
Rehearsals have begun at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre for Something That Happened, a play in which fiction collides with the realities of the cast.
Performed by the troupe of seven neurodiverse artists and directed by Anne-Louise Rentell, it is inspired by the history of representation of people with disabilities in film and billed as “a funny and imaginative exploration of the quest for fame and inclusion”.
When an international film company is undertaking a global scouting mission to cast a new film version of John Steinbeck’s classic tale Of Mice and Men, the audition notice finds its way to The Strangeways Ensemble, Wollongong’s only professional theatre group.
Hilarity and reflection ensue as its members pull out all the stops to see if this could be their “big break”.
The chance to hit the big time doesn’t come often. For neurodivergent artists, it’s a once-in-a-blue-moon-type deal, according to cast member Ethan Arnold.
“I appreciate that we [neurodiverse people] are now being given more options to perform in every medium, but I would like to see us do more. There are people who are neurodiverse, especially members of this group, who want to perform beyond certain roles,” he says.
“I’m not being mean about it, but we have seen people who aren’t neurodiverse playing neurodivergent roles, and I think a lot of us would like to see a bit of a reversal: neurodiverse people playing neurotypical roles.”
Ethan plays a hybrid role in Something That Happened, starting as the narrator – but not your typical omnipotent, all-knowing narrator. He is a friend to the audience, ushering them through the story of which he is also a part, playing both a cameraman and himself.
“It starts with us rehearsing for a Strangeways Cabaret, but then we learn that a film studio is doing a global search for a diverse casting for a new adaptation of Of Mice and Men, and we all think ‘this could be our big break’. So we all start making self-tapes and talking about our dreams,” Ethan explains.
“I start as the narrator and help the other characters out by offering to make their self-tapes. Throughout the play, I get asked, ‘Am I auditioning for a role?’ and I start to think, ‘Maybe’ …”
Ethan will be working with assistant director Steve Wilson-Alexander of re:group performance collective (Coil, UFO, AUTO-TUNE), who is taking point on video design for the show, which will present a combination of shooting and production that will be done in the coming weeks and live video on stage.
In other words, the audience will watch elements of movie-making and storytelling side-by-side.
For Ethan, storytelling is the most important element, and perhaps the reason he was drawn to performance art in the first place.
“I like the story we’re telling. It’s important. There’s a big message in it,” he says.
“That’s what I love about acting – the fact I’m able to tell a story. Plus, I like the idea of representing a character.”
The acting bug bit Ethan about eight years ago. His first “real foray” into the world of acting was with The Disability Trust’s Altogether Drama program. After his performance in a production titled The Birds, he was approached by The Strangeways Ensemble director Anne-Louise Rentell to join the troupe.
Having completed two professional works with Merrigong – The Man Who Dreamt the Stars (2014) and The Outside Man (2017) – The Strangeways Ensemble formalised in 2018. The group has since produced two more shows – Trash Talk (2020) and The Strangeways Cabaret (2021).
The ensemble meets every Friday to rehearse, develop skills and undertake workshops with the country’s leading theatre artists and companies. It was during one of these sessions in 2020, held online due to pandemic restrictions, that the concept of Something That Happened first emerged.
“Every Friday afternoon we’d log on and develop work. We’d talk about movies and our love for film. Eventually, representation came into the conversation,” Ethan says.
“Then Of Mice and Men came into the mix and it was like – here we go.”