We all remember our school formal. Whether it was the hideous dresses we wore, the boy who threw up in our shoes, the fact that we boycotted the whole shebang and went bowling instead or that it was the night our your lives began, the high school formal is a one night that we all have an opinion about.
Matthew Whittet remembers his because of the peculiar effect it had on him. “I have very distinct memories of standing outside the school dance waiting and starting to shake and I couldn’t understand it. It was a warm night and I was thinking, ‘Why am I shaking?’ Then realising the absolute, sheer terror and bliss of a world that you knew being transformed for one night.”
When director Rosemary Myers asked Whittet, a writer/actor (or “wractor” as he jokingly refers to himself) to replicate the success of his 2010 play Fugitive, which touched on the triumph of the underdog, Whittet knew he had material that was too good to ignore. He and his Fugitive collaborators sat down to brainstorm ideas, emerging with the quirky, hilarious, touching and irresistible 80s time warp that is School Dance. Less than a week into its Sydney Festival season the Windmill Theatre production has already proven to be one of the event’s hit shows, creating an irresistible buzz on social media. So profound was the effect on a range of audience members when the work premiered at the Adelaide Festival last year that the play has been included on the 2013 reading list for VCE drama students and will tour nationally for the next six months.
So what’s it all about and will it appeal, even if you’re not an 80s tragic? The answer is a resounding ‘you bet’. Whittet, who also stars in the play, has crafted a kinetic 75-minute work that transports us to the year nine disco circa 1980s, where three out-and-out dorks are anxiously lurking outside their school dance, trying to drum up the courage to go in. A blatant homage to the era of big hair, fluoro plastic and lace gloves – and that was just Michael Jackson – School Dance features Whittet and his collaborators Luke Smiles (also the sound designer) and designer Jonathon Oxlade in utterly convincing form as the three awkward teens, with all their hang-ups and fears intact. The chameleon-like Amber McMahon completes the cast, playing various female roles.
“Us three boys did come to the conclusion that we were all odd, we were all outsiders when we were teenagers. So we took that as our point of difference that we wanted to explore,” says Whittet. “I grew up on the northern beaches. I went to a very sporty school and was this strange pale skinny little man with glasses who really liked doing drama and painting.”
However, this is far from a play that scores cheap laughs from poking fun at geeky outsiders. Without preaching, it quietly becomes evident that School Dance is a poignant story with a heart. “I get this little message from this play: the idea that what might make you uncool or different at school is often what makes you interesting as an adult,” says McMahon, a self-confessed “weirdo” at school. “If you follow that rather than ignore it, it can offer you an incredible vocation in life. Jonathon [Oxlade] was probably [hassled] for being different in some way and that’s what makes him the incredible designer he is now.”
Whittet is gratified that a play addressing the oft-neglected young adults/early teens has been programmed on the Sydney Theatre Company’s main stage. The NIDA-trained actor has a remarkable ability to shed decades, be it as an actor or writer. He was utterly convincing in The Book of Everything at Belvoir and Fireface for STC and he has three plays in the pipeline that span young children to adults (two for Windmill including the July production Big Bad Wolf, and another for Belvoir following on from the success of his play Old Man). He was also recently awarded the Sidney Myer fellowship, an $80,000 per year, two-year fellowship for mid-career artists.
Almost top of his list (but not quite) is the desire to play a role that often eludes him. “I’ve spent most of my adult life playing young people. Most of it is not by choice,” he says. “[School Dance] is. Maybe it's got to do with my energy as a person, [but] hopefully I’ll get to play an adult soon.”
School Dance runs at the Sydney Theatre Company Wharf Theatre until February 3 before touring to Wollongong, Melbourne and Brisbane.