Portrait

Telling Australia’s untold stories with the playwright of Counting and Cracking, S. Shakthidharan. By Celina Ribeiro.

Playwright S. Shakthidharan

Somewhere between Sydney’s M4 East and M4 West lives S. Shakthidharan. Shakthi doesn’t even know where he lives anymore. It’s like a Neverland. Where is this place? If he goes down the road to Flemington, it feels very Western Sydney. If he heads the other direction, towards Homebush, it’s very inner-west. But 70 per cent of Sydney’s landmass is actually classed as “Greater Western Sydney”, which is ludicrous. Central Sydney? He laughs: “I call it the Far East.” He laughs often.

Still, where he lives is perfect. “I live physically in the perfect metaphorical spot,” he says. Neither west nor east. Neither insider nor outsider. It’s an in-the-middle place. Shakthidharan is a playwright, musician, artistic director, producer, filmmaker and community artist. His first play, Counting and Cracking, which his company Co-Curious co-produced with Belvoir, sold out before its premiere at the Sydney Festival. It was Belvoir’s biggest production, 10 years in the making and bloody expensive.

Counting and Cracking tells the story of a Sri Lankan family coming to terms with its past. Shakthi’s a Sri Lankan Tamil; he moved to Sydney from Colombo when he was three. The show is written for multiple audiences: each line says something to a Sri Lankan audience, and something else to a wider Australian one. For Shakthi, it is critical that these “community” stories get a mainstream airing.

“The trick of it is that it actually deepens your sense of being Australian,” he says. “That’s something I didn’t expect, how much it would mean to the Sri Lankan community that everyone else watched the show.” He laughs again. “They were stoked.”

Shakthi was not supposed to be an artist. “People like me are not artists,” he smiles. His family are doctors, accountants, engineers and lawyers. But his mother is a dancer, classical Indian. He always had a window into ways of being an artist that was not Western. He never had to doubt that. Or that this stuff exists within Australian homes. His mother gave this knowledge to him – but even she told him to stay out of the arts. What was the point for a Shakthidharan?

The point was stories. Shakthi knows that the lives of Australians living outside the country’s cultural country club are bittersweet, beautiful, funny, tragic and important stories. If only someone would listen. At 21, he established his own production company “to tell Australia’s untold stories”. But after a few years, he realised it didn’t work like that. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh wow! We didn’t know about these stories. Let’s tell them!’ It’s like, ‘No, we’ve built a system not to tell these stories.’ ”

So, he’s trying to build a new system. It requires a different way of writing – none of this creative genius scribbling away alone in a room, “which is all bullshit, anyway”. It needs a different way of producing, listening, marketing, casting, staging. It will mean different people watching, different people belonging. Surnames that the establishment can’t pronounce and suburbs that they don’t visit. Surnames like his, and mine.

We meet in a cafe in a part of the Far East that used to be shabby, but now has converted warehouses and entertainment quarters. We agree and agree again. About how migrants get fixed in time, about how their children get locked in that time too, about how you’re supposed to move eastwards when you become successful, about how places such as Western Sydney are ignored, cringed at and then feted when everyone realises it is places like these that hold the cultural, political and social movements of the future – and that this could be for good, or for bad. Shakthi does not seem angry. He does not finish his half-drunk smoothie. He checks his phone for the meetings he has lined up for the day. He’s got too many projects going to list. We barely even touch on the scope of Colony, a multi-year, multiplatform artistic universe he is creating, set in Western Sydney from pre-colonial times to the 22nd century – a project of which Counting and Cracking was a part – even though, I remember later, this is why I wanted to speak to him.

Instead, with shrugs, and head shakes, and laughter, we talk about stories. And who gets to tell them.

“When we think about the stories that are being told in Australia with the most power and resources, what we’re really talking about is urban, middle- and upper-class Anglo-Celtic stories. So much of European Australia has been left by the wayside. Working-class Australia has been left by the wayside. Regional Australia has been left by the wayside. So, it’s not even a white [versus] migrant thing. It’s just a certain 15 to 20 postcodes whose stories are told – and even then, only certain houses within those postcodes,” he says.

“The whole point is to no longer call these stories migrant stories. The whole point is to say these are Australian stories that deserve pride of place alongside any other Australian stories.”

At midday, his colleague arrives ahead of another meeting. I’ve got to go. He’s got a lot to do.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 31, 2019 as "Some cracking tales". Subscribe here.

Celina Ribeiro
is a freelance writer and editor based in Sydney.