By Karyn Hodgkinson
It’s not often that one comes out of a performance feeling enriched by the experience – feeling as though something about yourself has been brought into the spotlight – that, in a unique way, you the spectator, was seen and acknowledged by the performer.
Donor, written and performed by Julia Grace, does just that.
The reason for the name of the show, Donor, does not become clear until well into the piece. However Wren’s dismissal from her advertising job happens early. Wren is 40 and presumably single. Devastated that she is fired, her life begins to spiral downward, culminating in despair about her best friend, Kate, for reasons I will not give away here. In the meantime we have seen the extent of Wren’s self doubt. From childhood she’s felt that she’s not ‘good enough’. Also she feels a lack of vocational fulfilment, a lack of moral purpose and is generally confused. Her refrain in answer to questions concerning her life is ‘I don’t know’. Like Socrates and Voltaire before her, she is driven to the big existential questions. What is a worthwhile life? In fact, ‘why am I here’? So the picture is gloomy. However through this gloom, we laugh – a lot. It is black humour at its best, where comedy and tragedy are entwined, always holding the mirror up to our own lives.
Grace was nominated for Best Performance in 2018 by Melbourne Fringe for her creation of Turtle. Likewise, Donor is a powerhouse of storytelling. It is a play-length monologue, beautifully crafted and structured. Her use of figurative language is just – lovely. A shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago where she was living, is referred to as ‘the beach’. She scoffs when comparing this ‘beach’ to Australian beaches – it is merely ‘the performance of beach’. While sitting in a pink and red foyer, waiting for what turns out to be her sacking by an ambivalent female HR representative, she feels like she’s ‘in a uterus prepping to ovulate’. Soon after, her brain ‘feels like throwing toys at the wall’.
Not only is Julia Grace an exciting writer but she is a fine actor. She has spent much time in Chicago USA, learning her craft and being mentored. Having two degrees, in arts and dramatic art from two distinguished institutions in Australia, she has worked extensively on both stage and screen. She is also a respected teacher of acting and has been on the faculty of 16th Street actors studio in Melbourne. Her acting is unforced, spontaneous, and in actor-speak, ’in the moment’. It was wonderful to watch her in the intimate space of The Motley Bauhaus. Her ability to instantly give us a diverse range of characters, by using accent, tone and the pitch of her voice, is impressive. Her timing is impeccable. Her use of space, physicality and the sympathetic sound design all contribute to the magic. (The canoodling young couple near me were soon distracted by the calibre of the performance).
Grace’s costume choice of a white t-shirt and red trousers seemed to symbolise Wren’s desire for redemption (white t-shirt) through the spilling of blood (red trousers) for her friend. Her need to be washed clean and made anew by the sacrificial act that she plans, is both powerful and poignant.
The director, Emily O’Brien-Brown, needs to be acknowledged in helping to stage this piece. Her eye has served Grace well.
Importantly, Donor leaves us with a sense of hope. Despite Wren’s suffering, with the passage of time, she finally acknowledges that she is ultimately alive and has ‘a whole life to live’. She pursues a new vocation – accounting. This decision amusingly bookends earlier allusions to her accountant.
All creatives involved should be very proud of this show but none more than Julia Grace herself.