Our Country’s Good: Getting inside the minds of Australia’s first inmates

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Australia. When we think of this island nation, some fun facts come up. It’s the only country that is also a continent (my seventh grade geography coming in clutch with that tid-bit), it’s home to adorable kangaroos and, yes, at its inception, Australia was a penal colony for Britain’s criminals.

This is the context in which Our Country’s Good is set. In 1980, Timberlake Wertenbaker adapted this play from Thomas Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker. Chronicling the experience of British Royal Navy officers and their convict charges, this play-within-a-play structure allows the audience to more fully grapple with the hardships of settling a new country filled with convicts and their guards.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater, Sally Wood, is directing this play at Bates. Wood revealed in an interview that the idea to do this play came to her at Convocation. “I can vividly recall the physical sensation of having my head spill over with thoughts of privilege and income inequality. As I listened to Danielle Allen, I jotted down Our Country’s Good?? on the front of my program.”

Having first come across this play while going to school in Tennessee, it “always stuck with [her]” from then on. This play has great potential because it is an ensemble piece (there is no single individual lead), and it offers ideal acting and design opportunities. Wood noted, “What it says, or what I think it trying to say, is what I find so compelling.” In addition to the practicality of the piece, its message will resonate with audience members long after they leave the theater.

Directors have a lot to juggle when creating a show; they must communicate ideas with the actors, set designers and lighting designers. Wood emphasized, “Judy Gailen, our set designer, […] has done a beautiful job of taking a very clunky idea and making it delicate.” In any theater production, directors must somehow articulate all their ideas and get everyone else involved to understand the vision they are trying to create. Communication, like in anything else, is key.

I think we can all agree that without actors, the show literally could not go on. At auditions for this play, there was “a very strong turnout.” As a result, it has a bigger cast than most other productions of this play.

Some parts of this play are double cast. This means that one actor plays more than one character. For example, Mara Woollard ’16 plays Reverend Johnson, who is “a higher ranking officer who came with his wife on the first fleet.” She also plays Mary Brenham, “a young woman who falls in love with a man in England and is tricked into stealing and sent to New South Wales (Australia).” These two characters are about as different as you can get. It is a testament to the actors and their director that a show can run smoothly with this many quick changes.

Allie Freed ’16 plays Liz Morden, “who is referred to by all the convicts and officers in the colony as the most difficult and hardened prisoner.” It may be difficult to get inside the head of someone so callous, but Freed admitted, “I am so excited to bring Liz to life. She is such a fascinating and complex character, and even though her situation in life is quite unique, the themes that follow her throughout the play are themes to which we can all relate in one way or another.”

As many teachers will admit, the best part about undertaking a project at a school is the opportunity to work with students. Professor Wood is no different, as she told me that working with the students is the part of the process for which she is most excited.

Professor Wood said, “I have never seen a previous production [of Our Country’s Good], so for me everything about this production is new.” This is an advantage because she has neither preconceived notions in her head nor a little voice badgering her about all the ways her production is different from others. Going in blind allows for more of a creative license to be used, and the director can draw from what the script says instead of worrying about what other directors have done.

After all is said and done, Professor Wood wants the audience to remember, “in our darkest, nastiest, most undeserving moments, we are all capable of just a little more.”

The opening night for Our Country’s Good is one month away. It will run from Thursday, March 10 until Monday, March 14.

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