Sydney queer playwright Lachlan Philpott explored the uncomfortable topic of teen sexuality with explosive results in Silent Disco, the 2009 winner of the Griffin Award for Outstanding New Australian Plays.
It’s a theme to which he returns in his latest work, Truck Stop, premiering at Penrith’s Q Theatre next week before heading to the Seymour Centre in June.
Truck Stop takes a no-holds-barred look at the lives of three Year 9 schoolgirls who alleviate their lunchbreak boredom by hanging out at the truck stop adjacent to their school. It’s not long before their flirting with the truckies who pass by descends into full-on prostitution.
Sound far-fetched? Perhaps, but it’s based on a series of events that actually happened at a NSW public high school.
“It’s based on a story I’d heard from a teacher in the Hunter Valley,” Philpott told the Star Observer.
“Apparently it all started pretty innocently but progressed pretty quickly to oral sex and what have you. I was interested in what would drive 14- and 15-year-old girls to want to do that.”
As with Silent Disco, in Truck Stop Philpott seeks not to judge the girls’ actions, but rather to offer an explanation for them.
As he sees it, the reasons are manifold — from the proliferation of hardcore porn available to today’s youth on the internet to the ever-increasing sexualisation of pop culture.
“A lot of the role models young girls have are not really modelling the best feminist ideals for women. When I was researching, I was looking at a lot of pop stars — someone like Rihanna, who seems to trade on being a bit skanky,” he said.
“Kids are so impressionable. In this play, they’re obsessed with Ke$ha — I even went to a Ke$ha concert for research.
“I also wanted to ask questions about the case in a wider sense. Uncomfortable questions like, is it worse for young girls to sleep with truck drivers? Would it have been as ‘bad’ if they’d had sex with a football team or some medical students?”
Once he’d heard the true story that provided the genesis of the play, Philpott embarked on a research and development process that amounted to much more than the aforementioned Ke$ha concert.
“I spoke to everyone from high school students to sex workers. It’s interesting talking to kids at school — teachers are still awkward talking about sex, and that awkwardness gets passed on to the kids.
“If you start your life with an awkwardness about sex and you can’t talk about it, it’s no wonder you end up with a range of different issues.
“To me, there’s no better example of that than the gay community and some of the awkwardness we have about discussing sexual practices.”
That awkward silence also extends to the world of theatre. Since Bison, his 2000 look at the lives of gay men, Philpott’s developed a reputation for frank depictions of sexuality on stage, which has limited the showings his plays receive.
He said he was thankful Q Theatre decided to take a chance with a new play centred on such a controversial topic.
“Some theatre companies like the play but felt the subject matter was too confronting for their audiences, so decided not to program it. That’s so strange, given that’s the role theatre should have — to provoke some sort of response.”
Truck Stop’s season comes at rather an inopportune time for Philpott, who’s had to jet back from San Francisco where he’s spending much of the year thanks to an Australia Council Literature Residency. And all this while developing a screenplay for a planned film version of Silent Disco.
“San Francisco and Sydney haven’t really had any theatrical links before, so I’m looking forward to creating one.
“There’s a theatre in San Fran called the New Conservatory Theatre that basically just puts on queer work, which I find really interesting — if they manage to do that in San Francisco where the population’s much smaller, why not here?
“I’ll be writing a play over there that’s inspired by the ‘furry’ subculture — guys who get dressed up in animal costumes and live their lives as beavers or bears or sharks. It should be fascinating to research, but I just hope I don’t get too involved in it all and come home in a koala outfit.”