“To have compassion for those who suffer is a human quality which everyone should possess, especially those who have required comfort themselves in the past.”
Those words from Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century collection of novellas, The Decameron, feel particularly pertinent today. In a year that’s thrown bushfires and a pandemic at us, art can be a source of comfort for many – especially art that addresses how humans cope with events outside their control.
Boccaccio’s story deals with the Black Death. He writes of a group of 10 young women and men who, in an effort to avoid the plague, escape to a deserted villa outside Florence. Over the course of 10 nights in isolation together, each character shares a story with the group – so, at the end of the 10 days, 100 stories have been told. Some of the stories are funny, some are beautiful and some are tragic.
Enter: State Theatre Company and ActNow Theatre. Their new collaborative project Decameron 2.0 draws inspiration from Boccaccio’s work and brings together some of the state’s best writers – including Alexis West, Emily Steel and Ben Brooker – to write 100 new stories.
Like the original, the stories are responses to our current world and crisis. The writers meet online each week to discuss themes of The Decameron (such as fortune, fate, love and virtue) and use them as inspiration to create a five-minute monologue or free-form piece on the same day. Among the stories so far are a grandmother Zooming with her grandchild during isolation; a trans man waiting for surgery; and the experience of an Aboriginal woman in custody.
The following day, actors – including Miranda Daughtry, James Smith, Elaine Crombie and Valerie Berry – will be recorded performing the story. The first episode will be emailed to audiences on Friday July 10, and there’ll be a new one every week.
The ambitious new project is funded by the state government’s Covid-19 Arts Grants Support program, and supports more than 30 professional writers and actors.
Narungga woman and filmmaker, Kiara Milera, is one of the writers involved. “I worked with Kyron Weetra, who’s another First Nations writer,” says Milera. “We kind of split it – he does five themes, and then I’ll do five themes.” She says writing monologues isn’t something she’s overly familiar with, but she’s up for the challenge. With film production grinding to a halt in recent months, Milera’s first story explores the idea of dealing with challenges by yourself. “[My character] is having a conversation on the phone and is going through some personal issues. She doesn’t want to talk about anything, she just wants to deal with it by herself and move on,” she says of the character in her monologue, a First Nations woman called Elly.
Manal Younus, best known for her spoken word poetry, has also signed on to the project. “It’s quite dry within the arts scene at the moment, and we’re just waiting for more [restrictions] to be lifted to be able to do more,” says Younus. “From my perspective, [the project] definitely made me more hopeful and made me feel like I can rely on my creative career more as I move forward.”
“Sacrifice” is the first theme Younus tackled for Decameron 2.0. She wrote about the theme from three different perspectives before finding a character she was satisfied could form the basis of her monologue; eventually, she decided on a woman separated from her children. “I just let her grow by herself,” she says. “She evolved quite a bit during the writing process.”
Like Milera, Younus is new to monologue writing. “I think it’s a fun process. Just having that time limit means you don’t have as much time to overthink things, and overwork things,” she says. “It was a bit nerve-racking as well… but it was such a good exercise for growth, and self-trust, and going with your instincts.”
Once it’s safe for audiences to gather again, both ActNow Theatre and the State Theatre Company want to bring the project to the stage. “Powerful things – lasting things – can come from these difficult times, if we are willing to open our minds to the possibilities rather than looking at the limitations,” says Younus. “If we recognise that, we might be able to get through things a little bit easier or come out a little bit stronger.”
The first video from the Decameron 2.0 project will be available online on Friday July 10, with a new video to be released weekly.