Theatre that aims to reach across the faith divide

Struggling young writer DJ Havel is stuck. She’s pregnant, on a deadline and reeling from her mother’s death. Enter Dorothy Parker, Dorothy L. Sayers and Dorothy Day, and suddenly DJ has found her muse – IF they’ll behave.

That’s the pitch for Speak … Easy, a play written by Jo Kadlecek as a way for theatre to bridge the gap and spark conversations between people of Christian faith and no faith.

Described as a play about writers, women and wisecracks, Speak … Easy, directed by Nicholas Papademetriou, will receive its premiere as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival from September 3-15.

In this story of a writer finding her voice, the three legendary Dorothys – all prolific women writers who made an impact in the 1920s and 30s that continues to this day – each have different things to teach DJ.

“It’s a story of dialogue because you have a very secular, cynical perspective, you have a very activist perspective and then you have a conservative perspective,” says Jo.

Jo first discovered the “tidal wave of intellectual energy” that was British crime novelist and playwright Dorothy Sayers in the early 90s when she was working for a magazine that celebrated the Inklings – the Oxford-based literary group associated with Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Sayers is best known for her detective novels and short stories set between World War I and II that feature English aristocrat and amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, which remain popular to this day. However, Sayers considered her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy to be her best work.

She once said she’d “wake up, brush her teeth and sharpen her tongue.”

According to Jo, Sayers became so well-known through her detective novels that she chose not to write any more of them because she knew they would make money and she felt that would keep her from doing the real work she needed to do as a commentator on culture from a Christian perspective.

Dorothy Day was a Catholic convert and activist who in 1933 co-founded The Catholic Worker, a newspaper that spawned the Catholic Worker Movement, a collection of autonomous communities of Catholics and their associates who pursue social justice in their own way, suited to the local region. To this day, there are more than 250 Catholic Worker communities in various countries that are modelled after Day, while Parker and Sayers still have their own societies.

American-born Jo was thrilled to discover during her research that Day came to Australia in 1970.

“She visited Sydney and Melbourne to activate anti-war protesters, some of the pacifists who were trying to put pressure on the government to pull out of Vietnam. She actually spoke to a standing room only crowd at Town Hall and then two years later Australian troops were withdrawn and a lot of people link it back to her impetus.”

The sole atheist in the trio, Dorothy Parker was an American poet, writer, critic, and satirist, best known for her sparkling and stinging wit. She once said she’d “wake up, brush her teeth and sharpen her tongue.” She was the first theatre critic for The New Yorker and a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers, critics and actors who daily met for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. She later had success as a screenwriter in Hollywood, garnering two Oscar nominations, until her involvement in left-wing politics led to her being placed on the Hollywood blacklist.

Jo wrote an earlier play about Dorothy Day, Hell Hole, which was given a “public moved reading” by Clock & Spiel Theatre Co last year. Now she wants to introduce audiences to all three of the Dorothys – who were born within four years of each other – through a conversation that draws out their differences and commonalities.

“What it shows me is the burden of creativity if you don’t know your creator.” – Jo Kadlecek

“Now, Parker and Day lived in New York City at the same time, but I can’t find anything that suggests they knew each other because they travelled in such different circles. Parker loved the Great Gatsby lifestyle of the 1920s and 30s and Day embraced poverty and was a bohemian radical – both socialists at the beginning, but Day becomes a Catholic and spends her life among the urban poor,” says Jo.

“Parker had a lot of sorrow. She never found an answer, she tried to kill herself three times, she was medicated all the time, she was drunk – it didn’t matter who she slept with. What it shows me is the burden of creativity if you don’t know your creator … if you don’t have a theology, a faith response … It can be really exhausting if you don’t know the Prince of Peace.”

It has taken 15 years to bring Speak … Easy to the stage, from Jo’s initial researching through to development of a script during a fellowship at Anglican Deaconess Ministries (ADM) last year, followed by a public reading at ADM, which encouraged her to finalise the script.

“The three Dorothys are actually a really lovely tripod to base our company on.” – Alison Chambers

While the play’s kinks were still being ironed out, Jo and her actor friend, Alison Chambers, formed a theatre company to help them achieve their dream of doing the work they feel God has called them to do.

Joining the Dots Theatre put on its first play, W;t, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Margaret Edson, last year in Noosa, Queensland, but the company name is actually inspired by the values represented by the three Dorothys.

“One of the things we thought defines us is that the three Dorothys are actually a really lovely tripod to base our company on,” says Alison, who plays Dorothy Parker in Speak … Easy.

“So Dorothy Day’s voice for the voiceless and Dorothy Sayers, who is intellectually, theologically so sound, and then Dorothy Parker, who was just wicked creativity and humour. You think there’s three beautiful pillars to build a theatre company on.”

“We want it to be about having conversations with people unlike ourselves.” – Jo Kadlecek

Jo adds: “That really has become the cornerstone of our company. I think if we stay true to the three Dorothys, we will see audiences who are deeply challenged intellectually and theologically who are going to hear the voice of the voiceless and who are going to be entertained.”

Both are committed to one of the key ideas behind the play – that, even in a sometimes polarised culture, we can engage in conversations with folk who are unlike ourselves and enjoy the time learning from others.

“I think they [the three Dorothys] had a lot in common, which is really the point that we’re hoping the play brings out – we want it to be about having conversations with people unlike ourselves,” says Jo.

“We need not be threatened by the polarising, we need to see the commonality, so maybe putting these three voices on stage and showing the impact that they can have together on the next generation could also give us ideas about how to have conversations with others who maybe don’t think or believe the same way we do.

“I want the stories to come through. I don’t think you can listen to Sayers talk about dogma and truth without having to scratch your head and maybe wonder, or to hear Day talk about the hands of God. But also to see the life of somebody who’s struggling to find something to believe in. So I think it’s not a Christian play; it’s a play with stories that I hope will bring people together and start conversations.”

Alison hopes Christians will not let prejudice against theatre as an art form stop them from coming to see the play.

“What we’re really hoping for is that people from churches, people of faith who have thought theatre is not for me – we’d love them to reconsider and think, no, it is a beautiful art form – I think they’ll be surprised to find that theatre will be for them.”

Jo also sees the production as a way of bridging the chasm of different beliefs in the workplace too.

Jo says: “For me, it’s also about how does faith inform how we interact with people and how we treat people and how we honour them and respect them and invite them into our lives and listen to them?”

You can buy tickets to Speak … Easy here.