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Curtin graduate brings Jasper Jones to the stage

Cite Magazine

Award-winning playwright, actor and Curtin graduate Kate Mulvany is stepping into the spotlight again in her stage adaptation of Craig Silvey’s best-selling novel, Jasper Jones.

Image credit: Sally Flegg

Described as a coming of age story and a whodunit, Jasper Jones tells the tale of 13 year old protagonist, Charlie Bucktin and 14 year old rebel Jasper Jones, as they attempt to find the truth behind a death in their community.

For Mulvany, who also performs in the play as Charlie Bucktin’s mother, it’s a chance to tell this uniquely Australian story to a new audience.

“It is such a compelling, funny, heartbreaking story – a real page-turner,” she says. “I wanted to bring that to the stage.”

“The biggest challenges are simply fitting everything in,” Mulvany says. “Everyone has their favourite moments from the book so I had to make sure I honoured that as much as possible, whilst at the same time keeping the narrative driven and poignant.”

Set in a fictional country town in Western Australia, the atmosphere of Jasper Jones speaks to Mulvany’s own experiences of growing up in Geraldton in Western Australia’s Mid West.

Jasper Jones reminds me of home,” she says. “Craig Silvey’s description of country WA in the book just had me from the moment I started reading. The baking heat, the people that blow in and out of town, the social issues, the community … I could relate to all of it.”

But, for Mulvany, Jasper Jones does more than echo her childhood home. “Craig brings up such important issues in the book that are still relevant today – issues I wanted to explore on a stage in front of a contemporary audience,” Mulvany says.

Set in 1965, with the Vietnam War, second-wave feminism and the civil rights movement rumbling in the background, Jasper Jones deals with indigenous issues, gender issues, depression and suicide – many of which resonate with Mulvany’s own story.

Her father, a Vietnam War veteran, suffered from post traumatic stress disorder throughout Mulvany’s childhood, and Mulvany’s late partner Mark Priestley also struggled with depression before taking his life in 2008. Mulvany too has had her own trials to overcome. From age three to ten, she battled childhood cancer due to her father’s exposure to dioxin (Agent Orange) in the Vietnam War and, following Priestley’s death, she was also diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.

“These are issues close to my heart,” says Mulvany. “I wanted to share them with a live audience in my capacity as a playwright.”

Bringing subjects such as mental health, family conflict and politicised issues to the forefront is something Mulvany is well known for. In 2006 she took her and her family’s story to the stage with her semi-autobiographical play The Seed. Like Jasper Jones, Mulvany both wrote and later acted in the piece when it debuted. In it, Mulvany shines a light on the issues of war, post traumatic stress and the devastating affects Agent Orange has had on both Vietnam veterans and communities in South-East Asia.

“One of my lifelong goals is to keep informed the public of the devastating effects of the dioxin dropped in South-East Asia during the Vietnam War,” she says. “I want to continue to pressure the developers and perpetrators of this product – namely, Monsanto and various governments, including our own – and to have an open dialogue with those families who are still suffering its horrific genetic legacy.”

The Seed went on to win the Best Independent Production, a nomination for Best New Australian Work and Mulvany herself was nominated for Best Actress in a Lead Role in The Seed at the 2006 Sydney Theatre Awards.

Since graduating from Curtin with a double major in theatre arts and creative writing, Mulvany has written over 20 plays and continues to wow audiences with her writing and acting. She’s won five Sydney Theatre Awards for her 2013 play Medea, which travelled as far afield as Poland, and she currently holds fellowships with two companies – Bell Shakespeare and Sydney Theatre Company.

“I love having my own small part in the ancient culture of storytelling,” she says. “I love the thrill of live performance to an audience who have taken the time to come to the theatre, or to an Australian film.

“The most wonderful moment is hearing an audience of people gasp, laugh and cry as one.”

“I chose my pathway because I am awestruck at the diversity of Australian stories and am determined to tell them in any way I can,” Mulvany says, and she fondly recalls her fellow “Haymanites” from her Curtin university days, many of whom she is still in contact with.

“We would often spend 17-hour days, seven days a week at the theatre getting a show up. We did it for the love and passion of performance, a motivation that continues in me today.”

For Mulvany, it’s all about telling diverse Australian stories, and Jasper Jones is as Australian as it comes. Given her passion and personal history, there is no one more suited to bringing this story to life.

Graduate Snapshot

Portrait of Kate Mulvany.

Name: Kate Mulvany

Course: Bachelor of Arts (Theatre Arts and Creative Writing)

Graduated: 2000