Savetsila says Australian Graffiti was inspired by stories he was told by older relatives. (Supplied: James Green)
At 23, Disapol Savetsila is the youngest playwright to ever have his work performed at Sydney Theatre Company.
His debut play, Australian Graffiti, currently sits alongside two productions written overseas long before he was born: an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, and Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine.
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“Sometimes I still catch myself sort of thinking: ‘Oh my god, we’re standing at STC talking about characters that I’ve written.'”
Savetsila was born in Sydney and grew up in a family of Thai restaurateurs who lived in regional New South Wales — first in Parkes, then Bathurst.
It wasn’t something that Savetsila gave much thought to when he was growing up.
“I didn’t wake up every day thinking, ‘How do I exist in this small country town as an Asian teenager?'” he says. “You’re just occupied living your life.”
Mason Phoumirath and Airlie Dodds play 16-year-olds Ben and Gabby in Australian Graffiti. (Supplied: Lisa Tomasetti)
Protecting ‘home’ in the face of change
Australian Graffiti is about a Thai family who run a restaurant in a small Australian country town.
When graffiti in Thai appears on a church wall, the family become suspects, and everything changes.
“I was interested in that idea of home, and being protective over what it means, especially in the face of change,” he says.
“That idea, that as soon as your lifestyle changes — and not just your own, but your community’s lifestyle changes — the way people can instinctively dig their heels in to stop that change.”
Monica Sayers and Srisacd Sacdpraseuth play the roles of cooks Nam and Loong. (Supplied: Lisa Tomasetti)
The play has an element of magical realism, in the form of a cook named Loong, played by Srisacd Sacdpraseuth. Loong is dead but still around, unburied and with much to say.
For inspiration, Savetsila says he drew on stories he was told by older relatives.
“There’s this wonderful reality about superstition in Thai culture, especially in a lot of our stories where it can be magical but also be treated as an ordinary part of your everyday life, and just purely natural.”
From page to stage
When Savetsila was 19, he submitted a short play to the Lotus Playwriting Project, an initiative run by Contemporary Asian Australian Performance and Playwriting Australia.
At the time, he was a creative writing student at the University of Wollongong.
That play — already called Australian Graffiti — got him accepted into the program, and before long, it came to the attention of STC’s literary manager, Polly Rowe, who picked it up for further development in STC’s Rough Draft program.
Savetsila says the play has been a collaborative effort with his cast of seven actors. (Supplied: Lisa Tomasetti)
For the last few years, Savestila has been working with director Paige Rattray to bring Australian Graffiti to life.
Much of this process has been a collaborative effort with the actors, a cast of seven, playing five Thai characters and two locals: Gabby Chan, Airlie Dodd, Peter Kowitz, Kenneth Moraleda, Mason Phoumirath, Monica Sayers, and Srisacd Sacdpraseuth.
“By the end of the first week of rehearsals, I really got the sense then that this play wasn’t just mine anymore, it’s everyone’s,” Savetsila says.
The actors improvised and brought in their own interpretations of the characters, and experimented to stretch out the characters in as many ways as possible.
“And I get the lucky role of sitting in the corner and watching them unlock all these incredible things … and then getting to just write it down and then steal it,” Savetsila says, “which is pretty incredible.
“Everyone was able to bring their own thing and really shape the play in ways that I definitely couldn’t.
“If it was in my hands, we would just be talking about another Word document at the moment.”
The writing’s on the wall
Australian Graffiti is part way through a five-week run. Many nights in the 200-seater theatre have been sold out, and Savetsila feels like he can finally relax a little.
“I’m over all the initial jitters that occurred, and the terror of wondering how people are going to react to it,” he says.
Savetsila’s family — his mum, grandma, and brother — came from Bathurst this week to see the show.
“Honestly, I was really nervous about them seeing the show cause they’ve never seen anything that’s been kind of this close to home. I think they really appreciated it,” he says.
“My mum said it’s nice to know that I’m not just wasting my time down here.”
For now, Savetsila is enjoying the ride and keen to make light of the buzz around his achievement as the youngest playwright to have work programmed by STC.
“If anything, I’m pretty sure that next year they’ll find a 22-year-old or something,” he says with a smile.
Australian Graffiti is playing at Sydney Theatre Company until August 12.