Game On

Subiaco’s long connection to sport inspires a brand new show, says Ara Jansen.

Andrea Gibbs saw her first AFL matches at Subiaco Oval, so she’s pleased to be able to bring footy back to Subi, even if it’s in a slightly different way. Her debut play, play Barracking for the Umpire, is being restaged by Black Swan State Theatre Company at Subiaco Arts Centre. Drawing on real events and Gibbs’s own football related experience, Barracking for the Umpire is a family drama exploring what people will sacrifice for the game they love. It tackles blokes and their vulnerability, the fragility of the human body and the impacts of brain injuries on players, family and community. “All the characters in the play have a slightly different relationship to footy,” says Gibbs, best known as an ABC Radio weekend presenter and for the live storytelling series Barefaced Stories. “Most of them are footy mad. One of the sisters is a sports journalist because she hadn’t been able to play and is desperate to be part of it in some way, the son is playing in the AFL and the mother has been the backbone, supporting everyone. “I tried to find a way in for each audience member who has a relationship with football. Even if you don’t like it, there’s a character who will stick up for you.” The increased focus and recognition of concussion and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in sport is particularly topical in community sport and is a central premise for the play. One of the characters, Doug, is receiving a lifetime achievement award from his team The Mighty Dons, but the sure hands of this once great player are starting to fumble the ball.

“No matter the level of footy, the passion is still there and the same desire to perform at your best. You want to play well for your team, your mates and yourself. A level of toxic masculinity is involved in that, which can put everyone’s health at risk. Quite often it’s a young person whose life has completely changed.” Gibbs says while she loves watching footy, someone getting hit or concussed suddenly takes the game from entertainment to the starkly real, reminding her how players in many sports put themselves and their bodies on the line when they play contact sport. Barracking for the Umpire is set in the south-west town of Donnybrook, where Gibbs grew up. Like many other regional towns across the country, the spectre of footy looms large, not only for the benefits of sport but because of its ability to strengthen community and social connection. Gibbs’s own dad put down the football after a lifetime of playing and became an umpire after one too many knocks. Her brother and her male cousins all played footy while the girls were left largely to support roles, which thankfully has changed in recent years. Their nan’s front garden was right at the goal posts, so there was no escaping the game. “Footy was a big deal,” she says. “It always seemed like a special part of the community.” If she was still living there, Gibbs would definitely be lacing up her boots for the Donnybrook Football Club.

Featuring the original cast who performed Barracking for the Umpire when it debuted in a critically acclaimed season in October 2022, Gibbs has been thrilled with the reaction to the piece, especially because it was her first play. Since then, the play was part of the Australian Theatre Festival in New York last year. Gibbs loves the synergy of having gone from a town known for its apples to the Big Apple with a work about footy, a quintessentially Aussie sport. An actor and comedian, she has also started collaborating on a screenplay to turn the play into a feature film. Another first for her. “I feel like I worked on the original play for so long, these are now the new fruits of my labours. The character arcs are strong and I feel like we will be exploring that.” In November, The Seed will also be returning to the stage in Subiaco. Black Swan artistic director Kate Champion is excited because she believes WA playwright Kate Mulvany has managed to make what could be extremely personal subject matter highly relevant to a general audience. Comedy and tension runs high as a daughter, her father and grandfather meet on their collective birthday and navigate new lives amidst the rubble of the generational effect of war. “The Seed, I think, will earn its place in the Australian Canon,” says Champion. “I think we have a responsibility – we put so much effort into new writing and bringing plays to stage and then I’ve never seen them again – to make sure we bring back the ones that have significance, particularly by a local writer. Pinpointing those plays that we need to see again is a vital responsibility of a state theatre company.”

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