01.09.2015 Environment

Life at a Crossroads

A new play about species extinction in Australia poses questions about our own survival. Margaret Evans previews Extinction

Turning our minds to the issue of climate change and what it means for the existence of life on Earth can overwhelm even the hardiest souls - so much so that we are increasingly pushing it to the back of our minds altogether. Opinion polls now trace how far climate change has fallen down our list of priority issues in just one or two years.

But it's a different thing completely when we see the impact on an individual life, be it human or animal. It's then that we can give voice once more to our anger and passion as we demand answers.

That's the thinking behind a challenging new play about to make its world premiere in Perth this month. Extinction is written by Helpmann Award-winning Australian playwright Hannie Rayson and will be performed by the Black Swan State Theatre Company.

The death of a tiger quoll, a small marsupial on the critically endangered list, is the backdrop to a story that raises questions about survival - and at what cost?

The setting for Extinction is Cape Otway on Victoria's dramatic southern coastline where the tiger quoll, so named for its sharp teeth and tenacious personality along with a reddish-brown coat, was once plentiful but now faces extinction. But it could just as easily be any habitat where native animals are being crushed under the weight of human incursion and the threats we bring with us - land clearing for homes and industry, predatory cats and foxes, broadacre monoculture, all the human activities that contribute to our ever-heating planet.

West Australians will remember the fight to save the chuditch, the Western quoll, which was once found across 70% of Australia but found itself cornered into the far SW and teetered on the edge of extinction until a government rescue program with great community support swung into action. Now chuditch numbers have recovered sufficiently for 40 of the creatures to be relocated to South Australia's Flinders Ranges to hopefully re establish themselves there.

It's a heartening success story in the constant struggle against species extinction - sadly, a story where Australia's record is shameful. Over the 200 plus years of European settlement, we have lost 29 species of mammals, more than any other country. Many more, like the tiger quoll, are battling for survival.

Playwright Hannie Rayson, for one, has had enough of official inertia and what she sees as endless bickering that rarely achieves an outcome. Instead, she is banking on the anger and emotional response that audiences will feel when they see this story of survival against the odds played out on the stage.

So much discussion about climate change has been reduced to "lining up an environmentalist with a climate-change denier" so that it has become "useless and boring", she said in an earlier interview. Theatre, on the other hand, "can make our hearts swell".

Extinction is her 14th play and follows other such topical and complex dramas as Room to Move, Hotel Sorrento, Falling from Grace, Life After George and The Swimming Club. She has won numerous awards and made playwriting history when Life After George was the first play to be nominated for the Miles Franklin Award.

Hannie first visited the Cape Otway area in 2011 when the germ of her idea set staff at the Conservation Ecology Centre out searching for conclusive evidence that the tiger quoll still existed. Just a few months later they found telltale droppings pointing to a surviving wild population. Now the story to save this species which once roamed over the whole east coast of Australia is set to stir audiences worldwide. As an apex native carnivore, quolls help regulate the food chain and thus preserve the resilience of their ecosystems.

The chance to be involved in environmental activism with the concrete goal of saving a species has been embraced by the cast and director of Extinction, Stuart Halusz.

"When you are looking at issues of climate change and ecology and conservation these are hot topics. They're issues that people can be divided on in strong ways," says Stuart.

"The thing with educating people and working towards changing habits and perceptions of a narrative is through drama, is through theatre. That's a real, positive way to effect change. You can lecture people until the cows come home with statistics but until you actually affect them on an emotional level and get people caring about something and someone to get real change is very difficult. I think that's where theatre really comes into its own."

He's aware that it's a brave undertaking for any theatre company, particularly a state theatre company, to tackle contentious environmental issues as Extinction does in its central conflict between conservation and big-money coal mining. It follows last year's production of Ben Elton's Gasp! which Stuart describes as a "very heavy satire of major polluters on the planet". With the support of its major partners and sponsors, Black Swan has decided "it's a conversation that needs to be had," says Stuart.

The company's support for plays that seek to raise social consciousness about critical issues of our time is paying dividends with an increasing audience base, and this in a difficult market when all performance art groups are facing cost pressures and competition from new technologies.

"It has widened and broadened and we have a much larger demographic now that has extended a lot to younger audiences," says Stuart. "We have done a lot of work in telling stories that might appeal to a wider audience and audiences that are socially conscious and socially aware and who want to engage in stories like this."

The signs are excellent for another successful season with what Stuart describes as a "huge buzz" at the recent season launch.

Another likely point of resonance with audiences is that each of the four lead characters finds themselves at a major crossroads in their life - career, relationship, even life threatening illness.

"So really the play raises the larger questions of what's worth saving," says Stuart. "Is it a species, a relationship, a single life, a business concern, or shoring up your salary for the next 10 years before you retire? What in life is worth saving? What do we choose to fight for and what are we happy to let go?"

It's an intriguing question with no easy answers but, as Stuart suggests, it's a conversation that's probably long overdue.

Extinction runs from September 19 to October 4 at the Heath Ledger Theatre in Perth.

Margaret Evans

Margaret Evans has a background in teaching, journalism and publishing. She is the editor of NOVA Holistic Journal.