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DIRT From Russia with love

Award-winning Adelaide Fringe production DIRT is coming to Fringe World this summer, hitting Home Economics at Girls School from Friday, January 14 until Sunday, January 30 (get more info and tickets here). This original queer political thriller took Adelaide Fringe 2021 by storm, winning four awards and a dozen five-star reviews. Commissioned, produced and performed by real-life couple, Wil King (ABC/Netflix’s Why Are You Like This) and Patrick Livesey (Tom Ballard’s #KWANDA) in response to LGBTQIA+ persecution in Russia, DIRT follows a Russian and an Australian over the course of a single night in Moscow, but things take a dark turn when neither turn out to be who they say they are. BRAYDEN EDWARDS caught up with Patrick Livesey to find out more.

Great to have you at Fringe World 2022! Where did the idea for this show come from and do you remember what inspired it initially?

We’re excited to be here! We were initially motivated by reports of anti-gay violence in the Chechen Republic and how little attention this was getting from international media outlets. These stories fed into a familiar narrative to us about what it was like to be gay in Russia. The more we looked into the issue the more passionate we became but we were also really conflicted about whether this was a story we could tell.

Chechnya is an occupied territory within the Russian Federation, it is a Muslim-majority region and is culturally extremely different to the Russia we think of as Australians. It’s also a region that has fought bitterly for its independence from Russia so the deeper we got the more complexity we uncovered and the more we became inspired to tell a story about the very dilemma we were having: how do you engage with an issue so far removed from your own lived experience?

Was a desire to help this situation in Russia also a motivation for writing this show? And were there any specific social or political changes it advocates for?

Definitely, but that in itself is a complicated question and feeds directly into the themes of the play. What does it mean to want to help someone you’ve never met and how on earth do you, or should you, go about doing so? For us and creating this work, it came down to two questions: “who is this story for?” and “what is it trying to achieve?” We created this story for Australian audiences to engage critically and emotionally with this specific humanitarian issue and hopefully instigate discussion around how to best use privilege to help others. As artists that’s one of the biggest roles we have to play: provocation of ideas and debate.

On the other hand, we knew we couldn’t tell this story and not try and contribute to some material change which is why we donate $1 of every ticket sold to two local organisations in Russia trying to improve the lives of LGBTQIA+ citizens: The Russian LGBT Network and the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives. These organisations work tirelessly advocating for the local community and also help to relocate those fleeing violent situations. By donating here, we’re ensuring that those affected are being supported by people with local knowledge and expertise.

How did you go about researching the setting of the play, and in particular how that context shaped the lead characters?

We started off by talking to as many queer Russians as we could. Most of those we talked to had left Russia because of issues they had had with their sexuality. It was through these conversations that we became confident in what we were doing: almost all of them felt that more needed to be done and as members of the LGBTQ+ community we should be using our privilege to try and grapple with this issue. On top of this we read and watched a lot. In particular the work of Masha Gessen, a Russian-American author and activist whose work we somewhat ravenously consumed.

Who else have you enlisted to bring the idea to life on stage? And how did that shape the overall result?

Our first port-of-call was the playwright, Angus Cameron, whom we’d worked with before and whom we knew had the talent and ability to bring this play to life. Then came director, Bronwen Coleman whom we’d worked with as an acting coach. B worked in New York City for over a decade as an actor and is a Life Member of the Actors Studio. Her knowledge and expertise is something we were both really drawn to and we knew she’d be the perfect director.

To round out the team we brought on DJ MzRizk to help create the underground techno world that the show exists in, Matt Ralph to do lighting, Alice Qin as dramaturg and Liubov Korpusova as script consultant. Whilst individually we believed in the strengths of each member, it really wasn’t until the first run of the play that we realised how great everyone worked as a team. We feel extremely lucky!

Theatre often helps audiences connect or empathise with people they might not otherwise interact with. Do you feel that made it a suitable medium for a story like this?

Without a doubt! We live in a world that is saturated with stories and images of world events and catastrophes. It’s extremely difficult to find time to focus on any one, let alone to invest yourself. What theatre allows for is the time and space to sit in a dark room for one hour and completely immerse yourself in an unfamiliar story. What that means for work that deals with real-world issues is that as an audience member you’re getting an experience way more engaging than reading an interesting article or watching a video on social media. You’re bringing your entire self to the issue: not only your attention but your empathy and all of your senses. It means you leave feeling connected and hopefully motivated to go out and seek further knowledge or ways of engaging.

And if there was one message you would like audiences to take away from this show, what would it be?

Our desire as human beings to help others is complicated, messy and essential.

What’s next for you and your team? Do you have further plans for this show, or anything else in the pipeline we can look forward to?

We feel very fortunate as artists to have discovered people we work with so well so we definitely have some things in the pipeline. 2022 is the 40th anniversary of the first diagnosis of HIV/AIDS in Australia and we want to give Australian audiences an original queer dramatic odyssey that deals with the contemporary realities of being gay in Australia. Angels in America and Boys In The Band are fabulous but we have our own stories to tell! Angus has written an absolute gem of a play, yet again, that is both extremely specific to the gay experience and is undeniably universal in its handling of sex, relationships and existentialism. So stay tuned for that!

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