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Because he writes for young people, Finegan Kruckemeyer has mostly worked under the radar – but he’s one of Australia’s most internationally produced playwrights. By Anthony Nocera.

Playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer

Playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer.
Credit: Sia Duff

The night before meeting Finegan Kruckemeyer, I watched the episode of Chef’s Table that features Milk Bar founder Christina Tosi, a pastry juggernaut who makes maximalist sweets such as three-tiered confetti cakes and cookies stuffed with chocolate, coffee grounds and pretzels.

“The world is more often your oyster when you approach it with more of a childlike sensibility,” Tosi says at one point. “The world is a more curious place, it’s a more beautiful place. It’s not always sunshine and rainbows but … within any given day in life there should be a moment where the weight of the world is just a little bit lighter on your shoulders.”

It was a serendipitous thought to encounter before interviewing Kruckemeyer, who, like Tosi, has spent his career injecting a childlike sensibility into his chosen art. We spoke as he was rehearsing his latest work, Hibernation, which premiered on August 17 at the State Theatre Company South Australia.

During the past 20 years, Kruckemeyer has become one of the nation’s most prolific and awarded playwrights. In 2019 alone, 29 seasons of 18 of Kruckemeyer’s plays were produced in eight countries. In 2017, he won the prestigious Mickey Miners Lifetime Achievement Award, at the International Performing Arts for Youth showcase, for services to international theatre for young people. By the end of September 2021, he will have had 102 plays produced in total.

Kruckemeyer’s huge output of high-quality work has been driven by a lifelong obsession with language and how it functions on a fundamental level. “The desire, the love of writing, has always been there,” he says. “And that was definitely long before it became any kind of job and even before I had any awareness of what theatre was. I just knew that I loved the exercise of learning about words, and learning what words can convey and, yeah, that lovely call and response. I’ve always found pleasure in the way writers capture huge emotions, huge lives, in concise ways. I love the potency of language.”

That love was fostered by his family, who put art and storytelling at the centre of his childhood. “We grew up on this hilltop in Ireland, in a town called Skibbereen. It was just us, and it was up to us to entertain and inspire each other,” he says. “My mother was always making art with the kids and my dad was always giving me books to read ... I remember parades down the street with us all dressed in cardboard when I was five. And I found out later in life that my parents chose Adelaide arbitrarily because it was called the Festival State, because they liked this notion of arts being on your doorstep.”

The family moved to Adelaide when Kruckemeyer was eight, which proved transformational for him. His early experiences of theatre in South Australia still deeply inform his work.

“I went to see a theatre show called The Postman by Théâtre Vélo, a French company,” he says. “There’s no dialogue in the work – at least I don’t remember there being any dialogue – and I remember the work really well. The postman comes onstage on his bike, and he’s got all of these massive boxes and packages that he’s meant to deliver. But he doesn’t deliver any of them and very naughtily opens them all himself … and these beautiful worlds came out, these amazing dioramas and puppets. It was so expansive, and there was so much sense of us being on the secret together. It was great. That’s the first moment that I remember being affected by theatre. It wasn’t a moment when I knew I was going to be a playwright, but it’s always stuck with me.”

Just as Adelaide exposed him to a wealth of art, it gave him a close-knit creative community to test his talents. By the time he was in his teens, he was already a prolific writer, working across poetry, comedy, film and theatre.

“As I worked more in theatre, I discovered where my love was and how best to convey what I wanted to say and [I] started doing more plays. By my early 20s I was writing to commission. I had a sense of the shape I wanted to write in and, yeah, in a really lovely kind of Adelaide way, it snowballed. Lots of lovely people in this city seeing my keenness, not my talents – it was very rough, what I was writing – but they just saw the love. And in this very collegial way, I was given the opportunity to write, to add in material in a show I was acting in, or a small commission. And then, incrementally, it became… all of this.”

Despite the importance that children’s theatre held in shaping his practice, Kruckemeyer wasn’t always interested in creating work for young audiences.

“I sort of correlated the making of children’s theatre with being a child. So, I moved away from it, and wrote for adults,” he says. “I went on that journey for a while, and then the ASSITEJ [International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People] world conference was on in Adelaide and I had a work on there and I met a bunch of people who talked about children’s theatre with the reverence that I always talked about,” – he inserts air quotes – “adult theatre”.

Although children’s theatre companies are some of Australia’s most sophisticated and in-demand cultural exporters, their work is often dismissed as secondary to theatre for adults. This attitude is only just starting to shift: earlier this year Windmill Theatre Company and Terrapin Puppet Theatre – both of which have commissioned Kruckemeyer – were the first companies for young people to be invited into the Australia Council National Performing Arts Partnership Framework.

For Kruckemeyer, the best children’s theatre embraces the complex lives of young people to create rich and immersive emotional worlds for them and their parents. As with Tosi’s sweets, Kruckemeyer’s work elevates something often perceived as lowbrow, reminding us of the experience of being a child, where flavour, pleasure and feeling are foregrounded.

“After ASSITEJ, I gave myself permission to view [children’s theatre] with the same kind of legitimacy [as work for adults],” says Kruckemeyer. “I suddenly found there’s a lot you could do with children’s theatre because of all the impositions placed upon it … The stories aren’t allowed to be rich and robust, the kids bearing witness aren’t allowed to encounter tragic emotions or sad emotions or vulnerable emotions – human emotions. This multiplicity in all of us, this way that we all feel many things … But that’s not what life is, I would argue. Life is tangled and complicated and lovely because of that, and so I wanted to give kid audiences something equivalent to something they would see in their lives.”

He says he sees these complexities in his seven-year-old son. “His emotions are so tangible. They’re even better than our emotions because everything he feels, he exerts, and he presents to the world. And he encounters the world emotionally, and people his age do. I would argue that everyone is feeling the emotions equivalently – I don’t think it’s something you lose as an adult, and that’s discussed a lot, I think it’s something you set aside or you kind of try to be aware of and stymie in some way. But the feeling is the same. And kids are just the vocalisers of it. And long may we hold onto that.”

When asked if he’s found it frustrating to work in a field that isn’t given the same recognition as “adult theatre”, he shrugs.

“I don’t mind that … because the child isn’t privy to that larger societal conversation about what level of importance children’s theatre work has,” he says. “I think the child is only encountering the work in the moment they’re in the theatre, and their families are too. So, as long as a child is seeing theatre, I think whatever the larger conversation is about the work is a conversation that adults are having with each other.”

Notions of chance and permission seem to pervade Kruckemeyer’s trajectory. They were at play in the creation of Hibernation, his most ambitious work to date. Set in the year 2030, the play presents a grim climate future where the government releases a gas into the atmosphere that causes all of humanity to hibernate for a year so that nature can heal. The play, grand as it is, represents a complete departure for Kruckemeyer.

Hibernation was this out-of-nowhere kind of thing, which is not how I work. Usually, I write a synopsis for a new work and then if it’s commissioned, I’ll start extrapolating and I build out that work and I make a play,” he tells me. “One night I chanced upon the idea or it chanced upon me. And I had to very quickly type to capture everything. It felt like the idea was running ahead of me and I was grabbing at whatever threads and words that I could.”

Kruckemeyer sent the first act of the play to State Theatre Company South Australia’s artistic director, Mitchell Butel, who is directing the premiere season. Sensing its prescience and epic potential, Butel fast-tracked the commission.

“He got back to me on the night that I was in a wedding in Tassie, and it was kind of the last hurrah before the world became weird,” he says. “Literally the next morning people start to change their flights and people are saying, ‘Something’s happening here’ and nobody can yet articulate what it is. But the night before, at the wedding, he gave me the thumbs-up and said, ‘This is the work to write.’ ”

Mitchell gave Kruckemeyer permission to write Hibernation as large as he felt the story should be. “And there are so many ambiguities in it because it became a piece about the issue of the climate and this cusp that we’re on, and then it became about how people deal with stuff, which I think is common to every play. The stuff with this is just bigger and immediate. It’s the future.”

A few days after Hibernation closes, Kruckemeyer’s The World Is Looking For You opens in the theatre next door at Adelaide Festival Centre, with Mount Gambier-based company Control Party. This will be the third South Australian season of his work this year, following his adaptation of Alison Lester’s Magic Beach for CDP Kids in May.

I ask Kruckemeyer if he’s planning on slowing down – or perhaps entering a period of self-imposed hibernation – after what has been a massive year for his work.

He smiles. “Before Trump, I was going to America two or three times a year. That’s where the majority of my work was being presented and that part of the world really opened up for me,” he says. “I met Linda Hartzell, the artistic director of Seattle Children’s Theatre, and it was this huge moment for me. And while we were chatting, I was talking about my work and cracking America and art and she stopped me and said: ‘Look, arts is one thing. But it’s not everything. Really, what’s important is the roots you put down. The love you have.’

“And that … shifted things for me. These days I do my art, in the time that I do. I’m a pretty boring nine-to-five type, or nine-to-three, kind of guy. And in the other times, when my son has finished school or my wife has finished work, I live a life full of non-art things.

“That’s what I fill my life with. Yeah, the writing is one bit, but the enjoying of a multifaceted life is the other bit. And hopefully one informs the other, hopefully the contentment felt in all that peripheral stuff means that the work is more honest or evocative for audiences … and for me.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 21, 2021 as "Child’s play".

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Anthony Nocera is a writer from Adelaide.