Mary Rachel Brown likes to be well prepared before she begins writing a play.
And so it was that she found herself trackside at dawn for more than a fortnight, watching greyhounds run round and round a racetrack. Most days she would place a bet and just as often share a beer or three with Nifty and Reggie, two of the old timers who are part of the furniture at the supporters club in Dapto, south of Sydney.
It was all in the name of research.
When Brown was commissioned to write a new play for the Wollongong-based Merrigong Theatre Company, she lit on a world many of us have heard of but few know anything about: The Dapto Dogs.
“I came up with the idea, then was faced with that thing of writing about a world I knew nothing about. Which was actually really exciting,” Brown says. “I was taken under the wing of two of the old guys there. It did take a while to gain their trust. I drank and gambled quite a lot of my commission in order to become one of them.”
The result is The Dapto Chaser, a fictional comedy based on the Sinclair family, which decides to put its heart, soul, and dwindling family fortune behind a win by its beloved dog, Boy Named Sue.
Although it’s set in the world of dog racing, Brown says it’s as much about family, the love of two brothers and their inability to express it. “It’s actually a play about family loyalty that could be set in any world. I’ve just chosen dogs,” she says.
Brown says the Dapto community was flabbergasted anyone would think to base a play on it, and curious how she would represent its world on stage.
“They used to point to the track and say, ‘how are you going to get that on stage?’ But they were genuinely excited about having their story told. The dog world has always been the lowest of the racing world. It’s under lots of financial pressure, tracks are closing everywhere and there is a sense of a dying world. So they were very happy to have their story told.”
Although she is an established playwright (previous plays include Inside Out and National Security and the Art of Taxidermy), Brown says she was more nervous before the Wollongong premiere than any other opening night. She needn’t have worried.
“The great thing about being a writer is you’re anonymous, and when I was chatting to a woman in the toilets and asked how she was going with the play she said, ‘Oh God, I can’t stand it – that’s my brother and father up there!’”
Despite that the play is fictional and darkly funny, the overarching theme is the crippling effects of gambling – a “sport” that goes hand-in-hand with most animal races, be they international racehorses or greyhounds.
“From gambling to the treatment of animals, it’s not my job as a playwright to arbitrate what’s right or wrong but to present a world with as much integrity as I can – warts and all in this case – so people can make up their minds,” Brown says.
After immersing herself in the dog-racing world Brown was saddened, but not altogether surprised, when Four Corners exposed evidence of live baiting in the greyhound racing industry earlier this year. The explosive story depicted live animals being attached to mechanical lures and hurled around the track and chased by dogs that eventually killed them.
Brown was appalled at the allegations, but highlights the desperation that drives people to act in this way. “It’s a world that’s under a lot of pressure – that kind of behaviour doesn’t come out of nowhere,” she says.
Brown is currently working on Silent Night, a comedy that takes the current focus on cultural extremism and flips it on its head. While the media debates religious fanaticism, Brown explores the world of people who are fanatical about Christmas lights, forced to live in their car come-Christmas as their house becomes overrun with Christmas lights.
“I find characters I love. It doesn’t matter what world they’re in,” she says.
The Dapto Chaser is showing at Griffin Theatre now.