The Age of Bones: Q&A with Playwright Sandra Thibodeaux

The Age of Bones is a play that follows the journey of young boy from Eastern Indonesia who goes fishing but fails to return. The production is a joint effort between Satu Bulan Theatre Company (Indonesia) and Performing Lines (Australia) and speaks honestly, and with humour, about the Australia-Indonesia relationship. With a number of upcoming performances across Australia, AIYA recently heard from playwright and co-producer Sandra Thibodeaux about the play’s genesis, production and audience reception.

Image: Performing Lines

Where did the idea for The Age of Bones come from?

When my own son was about 15, I came across the story of the Indonesian boys who were jailed in Australia for working on asylum seeker boats. They had already been in jail for about a year, and the story hadn’t even surfaced until then. I was shocked at the story and the silence surrounding it. The thing that struck me most was that the boys’ parents hadn’t been told where they were. They assumed the boys were drowned at sea.

So I wanted to get to the heart of this narrative, and try to show  through a play  the perspectives of the boys and their families. The resultant work is fictional, although it draws from real life. In The Age of Bones, a young boy, Ikan, leaves his parents to go fishing one day, and doesn’t return.

While the core narrative is obviously sad, I like to use touches of comedy where I can. There is a fair amount of political satire in the play, and the cast have brought in their own touches of physical comedy. Laughter helps to soften the political messages and intensify the weight of the sadder scenes.

How does the unique underwater setting influence the visual aesthetic of the play?

I was reluctant to use realistic scenes in the jail and courtroom these can be quite heavy and difficult to access, particularly in a bilingual context. I suppose it was given to me on a platter  we know Australia as ‘Down Under’, so why not set the Australian scenes down under, beneath the waves?

So the Australian scenes are quite fantastical. The characters take on aquatic qualities, becoming sharks and fish, and so on. The judge is a grumpy old octopus. The shadow puppetry, music and video all work together to take us under the water. There is a sense of strangeness that echoes Ikan’s alienation in a foreign land.

What does the play hope to illustrate about Indonesia, Australia, their peoples and nations?

I hope the play helps to foster a deeper cross-border relationship. We’ve chosen to tackle a sensitive topic  this might seem counter-productive to the task of creating regional harmony. However, I believe that it’s important to have open, honest dialogue about these sensitive topics  ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. Last year’s productions in Indonesia received a very warm response  I think the Indonesian audiences appreciated our attempt to have this kind of dialogue. They seemed surprised and, perhaps, touched that Australians would be concerned about the lives of young boys in eastern Indonesia.

At our 2015 reading in Darwin, an audience member commented that it was interesting to see the asylum seeker issue from another perspective that of an Indonesian boy co-opted into working on one of the boats. I think The Age of Bones provides another angle, and gives insight into the lives of people in Nusa Tenggara a place that is really not far away from Australia and, yet, is worlds away in economic development and the choices that this brings.

One reviewer has said The Age of Bones is a reminder that “people cease to see others as human beings but instead as machines, with only bones to work and perpetuate foreign capitalistic ideals.” How prominent was social or political comment for you during the playwriting process?

There is always a political framework informing a play or a film, even though this framework can sometimes seem subtle. Mine has been overt, and is concerned with the way we view our regional responsibilities, the treatment of displaced peoples, youths in detention, and the necessity of looking at issues through a global, rather than national, lens.

The above quote is very moving. The play has a second narrative wherein an older male character, the narrator, is nearing the end of his journey. Bone-weary, he observes the loss of his strength, his memory and sight. He has worked hard, often rescuing people and retrieving corpses from the sea. What is he left with? Fond memories of a few months spent in Australia where “people were nice”. Have we lost our ability to engage with our neighbours outside of the capitalist imperative? I hope not.

What was it like working with cast and crew from both Indonesia and Australia?

The play has had a lengthy genesis with quite a few artistic exchanges occurring. This has placed us in a good position for the productions. Last year, we commenced shows in Indonesia, performing in Lampung, Bandung and Tasikmalaya. As mentioned, the work was warmly received and we have many fond memories of traveling around in a bus with 22 team members!

Cross-border, bilingual artist collaborations are always challenging. People arrive at the stage with their own understandings of what it means to create ‘good theatre’. Part of the learning curve for everyone has been to let go of those preconceptions to allow for a third space  what we might call an Austronesian theatrical space.

The Indonesian and Australian team members have all been extremely hard-working, patient and good-humoured  in Lampung, we sometimes worked without electricity, in the rain, and at very late hours. I have never met people more patient and more inventive than Indonesian actors! Our opening production featured a mid-point black-out. I had a few moments of panic, thinking we’d better stop the show, before the Indonesians simply resumed their places and carried on, aided by torches. I was very impressed. This year, we’ve adopted a few new Australian team members who have brought into the mix a fresh wave of enthusiasm, brilliance and love. This augurs well for the productions that will be staged in Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and  my home town  Darwin.

Discover more about The Age of Bones, including performance times and locations, on the Performing Lines website.