Playing as a part of the 2023 Midsumma Festival, award-winning playwright and poet Amy May Nunn returns to Theatre Works with their latest work; Lemon Tree on Dreg Street.
Nunn confesses that the play emerged from a lockdown writing exercise and was never intended for anyone to see. “I was writing a lot of work that was pretty sodden with existential pandemic doom,” says Nunn. “I wanted to throw a spanner in my works, so I tasked myself with writing something that brought me joy, which was totally lame, but necessary.”
More than anything Nunn wanted to create an alternate world so that they could escape their living room. “Like many people I got caught in a malaise of nostalgia during that time, says Nunn. “This dreamy, melancholic, timeless/placeless feeling trickled in and took me back to my early twenties, and the exquisite lostness of that time.
This suburban lemon tree started to grow at the centre of that feeling, and the rest of the world emerged around it.”
A work exploring themes like love, family, nostalgia and rebuilding, Nunn explains that they were living in Collingwood at the time the work was written and the one constant, when everything else had shut down in the pandemic, was the construction of new developments – often erupting out of wonderful old buildings.
“Themes of gentrification and the erasure of queer spaces are definitely central in the play,” says Nunn. “It’s really about family and, more specifically queer family. How we find community and love when you’ve been pushed to the fringes. It’s about that very specific transitional, ‘growing up’ moment in youth, and the inevitable losses that accompany it. It’s such a vivid time, yet so many of the people and places that meant the entire world to us rapidly fade into nostalgia. I love the biter-sweetness of that. More than anything I want to capture that feeling, and hopefully catch folks off guard with it in ways they aren’t expecting.”
Nunn has described the play has having a wonderfully rich tapestry of poetry, music, and storytelling weaving in and out of it whilst also adding to the tapestry of epic and quintessentially Australian plays. And in keeping with that sentiment what could be more quintessentially back yard Australian than a lemon tree.
“First and foremost, lemon trees are inextricably linked to Melbourne suburbia,” says Nunn. “There’s something in how unremarkable they are, and yet they have this egalitarian communal nature. They’re nourishing, but not flashy. There’s something about a tree at the centre of any story that’s inherently magical and connected to an innocent realm of imagination, like The Faraway Tree or Fantastic Mr. Fox. I wanted it to have that quality, but in an unassuming way.
There’s this woman, or Possum Woman, who’s in love with the tree and is marrying it and the wedding becomes a catalyst for all the characters to explore their own relationship to family and ritual. I wanted something seemingly bizarre that could be alienating or even ugly, and then to win people over with it. I come back to this line from The Velveteen Rabbit ‘you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand’.
That’s what the tree is about. It doesn’t have to make sense. We can still invest in this love.”
A friend of Nunn’s described the piece as “Urban Queer A.A. Milne” and, for Nunn, there’s definitely something in that.
“The play walks this peculiar line between innocence and grit,” says Nunn who wanted to tell a story about home and family through a queer lens in a way that was so heightened, the queerness isn’t even a plot point – it’s just sewn into the lining of the world.
“References like Winnie the Pooh and Sesame Street were just kind of with me when I was writing it, I think because so many of those worlds felt queer coded for me and are to do with finding family in some fundamental way. I fell in love with the tension between that heightened innocence, and something more nuanced and cutting running through it.”
Nunn’s relationship to poetry was really through years of forced bonding with language. “It became about cracking open and finding freedom in something that had been oppressive, ” they say. “Growing up dyslexic, I couldn’t read until much later than many of my peers, so escaping to my own fantasy realm was a big deal for me. I was able to access other worlds through audio books, most of which were fantasy or horror. Escapism quickly become the most effective way to explore and understand my reality, and that dichotomy continues to excite me and inform my work.”
Nunn’s work has appeared in numerous publications including Voiceworks, Verandah, Windmills, Metre Maids and Award-Winning Australian Writing.
They are a two-time recipient of the Mathew Rocca Award for poetry, winner of the Express Media Award for poetry and the John Marsden Prize. They have been shortlisted for the Rodney Seaborn Playwright’s Award, the Canberra Youth Theatre Emerging Playwright Commission, the ATYP Foundation. Commission, and their company was a recipient of the inaugural 2021 Gasworks Arts Park Event Commission for a work they wrote and directed.
As a playwright, Nunn loves being taken somewhere far from home, only to realise that in that abstraction we’re taken deeper into our lives and are able to understand our reality better. They are drawn to characters that have some ability to express themselves in a heightened way, a way that relates specifically to the world of the play. “In this instance, the characters on Dreg St have a heightened tendency to burst into poetic odes. Generally, most of my characters are stone cold weirdos.”
Nunn is also part of the second cohort of the Theatre Works’ She Writes Program which was founded by Dianne Toulson, Executive Director at Theatre Works, three years ago. Nunn explains that Briony Dunn, the literary manager at Theatre Works (and the fearless leader) has been an incredibly supportive anchor at the centre of it. There are guest artists who run workshops and, says Nunn, it’s been extraordinary having access to those minds.
“For me the heartbeat of the programme is really us getting together and writing. Writing can be such a lonely thing, so being connected to a larger pulse is incredibly sustaining.”
Along with Theatre Works, Lemon Tree on Dreg Street is presented by Dirty Pennies Theatre Project. Co-founded by Nunn, along with producer Danielle Goder, in 2017, it began as a desire to platform female and queer identifying voices.
“We’d just graduated drama school and were feeling fairly disillusioned about the lack of representation as young queer people,” says Nunn about the genesis of the company. “A lot of what motivated us was a desire for a space that we could safely and fully explore our agency in.”
For Nunn, what sets the company apart is that they’re not particularly interested in defining themselves too rigidly. “Space to evolve is something we really pride ourselves on,” they say. “We’re growing, evolving humans, so naturally the company will change as we do, and we embrace that. We had absolutely no idea what we were doing when we started, it was very rough and ready, so we carry a healthy foundation of vulnerability into all our projects.”
Their philosophy is that the best idea in the room is the best idea, no matter who it’s coming from, and they’re always wary of capsizing creativity with ego.
The show is part of the Midsumma Festival – back this year with a vengeance after the dark days of COVID – and, for Nunn, it’s such a gloriously heart-on-its-sleeve festival. “Celebratory queer spaces are absolutely essential, and part of making the world a better and safer place. Honestly, queerness, summer, art… what’s not to love!”
Realised by a team of queer, gender-diverse, and racially diverse creatives, this Midsumma Festival audiences are invited to celebrate a wedding like no other. Featuring original music by Composer Oliver Beard, Lemon Tree on Dreg Street is a surprising and heart warming addition to the 2023 Theatre Works Season, not to be missed.
“This production will take your inner, or not-so-inner weirdo and joyfully unleash it as a thing to relish and celebrate,” says Nunn. “It’s brought to you by a truly impressive team of creatives, including the cream of the queer creative crop.
More than anything, you’re going to fall in love with these glorious weirdo characters and the whacky world they occupy. It’s pure, magical, wholesome comfort.”
January 27 – February 4