Listen: Dan Widdowson chats to Katrina Roe about his latest play. Above: Cast members Chris Bartlett, Daniel Widdowson, Alicia Simes and Tyla Williams.
It takes a unique combination of character traits to write a satirical, black-comedy play about the refugee crisis. But if anyone’s equipped to do it, it’s Dan Widdowson.
The former Hope 103.2 radio announcer and now full-time church pastor, is a playwright and theatre director in his spare time.
Equal parts compassionate and funny, Dan has a heart for social justice, as well as a sense of humour that never switches off. He’s combined those talents to create his new play, Worm Farming, a satirical look at the issues faced by refugees in Australia.
Set to show in Canberra, Sydney, Central Coast and Newcastle, the play is being staged by Dan’s own Salt House Theatre Company and is endorsed by the renowned refugee advocate Julian Burnside, QC.
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How the Refugee Crisis Inspired a Comedy
Dan chatted to Katrina Roe about how the play came about: “Obviously there’s a refugee crisis, and I felt passionate about it, I wanted to do something or say something,” he said. “Even when I was here at Hope on Breakfast I did some interviews. I realised I’m not a politician, I’m not a lawyer, but I thought, ‘I can write’.
“I tried to piece together a drama. But it was terrible. I took it to Leah and said ‘Look at this, this is terrible, even I don’t enjoy this!’ So she said, ‘why don’t you stick to your strengths, which is writing comedy, and in particular, satire and black comedy’.
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“I penned some ideas down, came up with some scenarios, got some characters, thought about how they’d interact, and then over a few months wrote the outline for the play.”
When a read-through by a group of actors ended in lots of laughter, and a serious conversation about refugees, Dan knew the play had struck a chord. The next step was to see what the experts thought.
“The idea of satire and the refugee crisis going hand in hand felt uneasy,” he said. “I sent the script off to other playwrights and had people review it. I did get one review back that was rather daunting. Most of the responses were great, they said ‘Do this, it’s timely, it has a voice, go ahead’, but one person said ‘No, this is irredeemably racist, and it’s poor form to punch down to refugees’.
“And I thought ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t want to be that guy’.
“But I had contact with Julian Burnside, and I thought if anyone knows he’ll know. I asked him to read the play. He read it and wrote back and said ‘It’s hilarious, you need to do the show’.”
When A Dysfunctional Aussie Family Takes in a Refugee
The play features worm farmer Andy Dawes (played by Dan himself), a scathing wife and daughter, an overlooked son, and one unwitting refugee.
“They have the worst neighbours possible, their house gets invaded by unwanted boyfriends and girlfriends turning up, and amid all this, they’re trying to take in a Syrian refugee,” Dan explains. “They have someone from Refugee Services Australia come and assess them, their character, their house, and the Syrian refugee, Ferran, turns up in the middle of all this. It ends up being the worst Saturday morning you could ever imagine. And not everybody makes it out alive. It’s pretty wild.”
Dan said that the play is designed to both entertain and shock.
“We want the audience to enjoy themselves, we hope they laugh, and at the very least, that it stimulates conversation about the refugee crisis,” he said.
“It captures the Australian capacity for hiding (and hiding from) our worst impulses and our worst conduct.” ~ Julian Burnside, QC
In his endorsement, Julian Burnside said the play “draws out two contradictory aspects of Australian culture”. “It shows the traditional, genuine Australian instinct for hospitality and concern for those in need; and sets that against the current hysteria about refugees and, in particular, Muslim refugees,” he writes. “And it captures the Australian capacity for hiding (and hiding from) our worst impulses and our worst conduct.”
Why Start a Drama Company?
Dan established the Salt Shaker Theatre Company not just as a creative outlet for his own talents, but to create a welcoming community, and help others tap into their gifts and abilities. It is now an officially registered Not for Profit organisation.
“I lived on Norfolk Island with my wife Leah for three years and in that time we ran (both) a youth group and a drama class,” he said. “We noticed that more teenagers were involved in the drama than the youth group—and that more of the drama guys opened up and talked about life. And I think it’s because there’s a vulnerability of being on stage and trusting those you’re performing with.
“So when we came back to the mainland I thought, ‘I love creating, I want to use that theatrical training, but also have something that builds community; I wonder if we can create a theatre company that doesn’t have a ‘clique’.
“So we wanted to start up Salt House which would be a theatre group that’s all-inclusive. It’s based on the premise that if God’s given you a passion to be creative, then there is something for you to do. You might not get the role or position you want, but that passion is there for a reason, so we will find something, somewhere, for you to do.”