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How Disapol Savetsila found his voice on theatre’s main stage.

When the house lights dim and the curtain rises on Australian Graffiti at Sydney Theatre Company, the play’s author won’t be familiar to most in the audience.

On a stage that has been home to the works of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekov, where luminaries such as Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne and Geoffrey Rush have trod the boards, the name Disapol Savetsila almost stands out for its obscurity. But it is a name worth remembering. In the years to come, Australia’s arts community is going to be hearing a lot more from Disapol.

At just 22 years of age, the University of Wollongong undergraduate student has already achieved more than most aspiring writers could dream.

His play, Australian Graffiti, which tells the story of a Thai family working in the restaurant industry in a small country town, has been accepted into Sydney Theatre Company’s 2017 main season.

It is a major feat for any playwright, but all the more impressive considering Disapol, who is in his final year of a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing), only began seriously writing for the theatre when he came to UOW.

“Writing is the only thing I’ve ever had any interest in doing,” says Disapol, who has been putting pen to paper since he was young, dabbling in the world of fiction. “I started a double degree in journalism and creative writing, but I realised that journalism wasn’t for me. I started specialising in writing for the theatre and found that I really enjoyed it.

“I think the first time I wrote something for the theatre was for my HSC. When I came to UOW, I wrote a monologue for the theatre and it was the winner of the Australian Theatre for Young People’s Where in the World national competition. I’ve been experimenting with the form ever since.”

Australian Graffiti is a largely autobiographical story for Disapol, who grew up in Bathurst, a regional city located in the heart of New South Wales’ Central Tablelands. It captures the tension between two cultures – Thai and Australian – in a family of restaurateurs living in a small town, that sense of isolation, loneliness and exclusion. Seen through the eyes of the main character Ben, the family grapples with its place in the regional town and the question of when to leave and when to stay.

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Disapol says it was based on his years growing up in Bathurst, as the son of a mother who ran a Thai restaurant in the town, but was also inspired by the feelings and experiences of the generations that came before him.

“I tried to tap into my experiences growing up in a rural town in a restaurant family. I was trying to tell that story of the conflict between the Thai and Australian cultures,” he says. “But it’s also the experiences of my parents’ generation and my family. It was difficult for them, being in a country town. It still is.

“In places like Sydney, they have that sense of community, but in somewhere like Bathurst, they are on their own, they keep to themselves. It’s that sense of isolation that I was trying to capture. I tried very much to be honest in my experiences, although there are some more fantastic elements in the play that have been exaggerated from my own memories.”

He believes the autobiographical elements, as well as the push to capture the more diverse voices of the Australian arts landscape, have really enabled the play to connect with audiences and was integral in propelling the work onto the stage at Sydney Theatre Company.

Australian theatre is really trying to get access to more diverse experiences from more diverse voices, because these haven’t traditionally been represented enough on the stage

Disapol Savetsila

Australian Graffiti grew out of the Lotus Playwright Project, an initiative of Playwright Australia and Contemporary Asian Australian Performance, which aims to bring the stories and creative works of Asian-Australians to the stage.

“Australian theatre is really trying to get access to more diverse experiences from more diverse voices, because these haven’t traditionally been represented enough on the stage,” Disapol says.

The play then caught the attention of Sydney Theatre Company via its Rough Draft Program, a week-long creative development process that enables playwrights to expand the scope of their ideas and further develop their works for the stage.

As a newcomer to the theatre, Disapol found the process – which involved working with a cast of actors and Sydney Theatre Company’s Literary Manager Polly Rowe – invaluable in helping to bring Australian Graffiti to life. The main character will be played by Mason Phoumirath, who graduated from UOW with a Bachelor of Performance. The result is a work that Sydney Theatre Company has described as “an investigation of the migrant experience from the inside out”.

“[Australian Graffiti] marks the debut of a remarkable young voice. Teasing out the complexities of identity and belonging, his writing – both wryly humorous and deeply affecting – offers an insight into Australian lives often overlooked.”

For Disapol, having one of his first plays debut on the most prominent stage in Australian theatre is a thrilling and terrifying experience. He is currently working with director Paige Rattray to bring his words to life.

“I just couldn’t believe it at first,” he says. “When they were deliberating over whether to include the play in the season, I was just so happy to have gotten that far. So it was extremely exciting to find out it would be staged. There’s a lot of pressure on me to deliver now. I’m just trying to spend my time making this the best play I can, but at a certain point you have to just let go and see what form it takes on stage.”

Theatre is a relatively new form for Disapol, but he appears to have fallen under the spell of the ancient art form. Although he does not come from a literary family, he has always been drawn to the written word.

As a child, his favourite genre was fantasy and he cites The Lord of the Rings and Emily Rodda’s Rowan of Rin series as his main influences. His literary interests have expanded in recent years – he now loves Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude – but the thread of the whimsical continues to inspire his work.

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Along with fellow university student Joel Burrows, he co-founded Theatre Vs Everything, an amateur theatre company based in Wollongong. The duo has taken one of their works, PressOne4Love, to Newcastle’s Crack Theatre Festival. Passionate about funding for the arts community and bringing theatre to the people, they describe Theatre Vs Everything as “a group of students just young, stupid and enthusiastic enough to believe that their art can change the world”.

Disapol says the experience of studying creative writing at UOW has been integral to his transformation as a playwright and his future on the stage.

“As soon as I got to UOW, I just loved it. Australian Graffiti was the first project I developed for my creative writing classes and it just kept growing bigger and bigger. The workshops at UOW just give you so much room to experiment and keep developing. I wouldn’t have my play staged at Sydney Theatre Company if it wasn’t for that experience,” Disapol says.

“Plays are an extremely collaborative process. Writing prose and poetry, it’s very easy to isolate yourself. But with theatre, you are all coming together to stage something: directors, writers, actors, producers, lighting technicians. Now, I don’t know if I could go back to prose. I don’t like being the only voice in the room.”

However, with his play set to debut on one of the most prominent stages in the country, it is safe to say that Disapol’s voice will be a dominant one.

  • Update: Australian Graffiti is playing at the Sydney Theatre Company until 12 August. See: sydneytheatre.com.au

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