In late 2021, as Sydney’s COVID lockdowns were eased and travel became possible once more, playwright Steve Rodgers and arts lawyer friend Michael Easton hatched a plan to combine a hankering for a swim with some inter-suburb adventures.
Over the next couple of years, they met regularly and travelled to one of the city’s municipal swimming pools – all points of the compass, from the northern beaches to the foothills of the Great Dividing range and the outer south west.
“We became swimming pool nerds,” Rodgers tells Limelight. “We were obsessed with the details in tiling and signage, the history of each pool. So many of Sydney’s pools were built in the 1950s and ‘60s – part of that post-War, post-Olympic Games thinking – and they are like signposts of another time when the idea of an egalitarian Australia took hold, a time that, personally speaking, I’m quite nostalgic for.”
Researching the subject, Rodgers learned that Sydney has more public pools per square kilometre than just about any other city in the world. “From Camden up to places like Hornsby, that whole great Sydney basin area has about 60 pools – including ocean pools – which is incredible for our population size.”
Rodger’s latest play, The Pool, which has its premiere in the 2024 Perth Festival, taps into his pool-nerd fascination for public infrastructure.
“I’ve always thought of swimming pools as almost magical places where the community gathers. I’m a people watcher by nature, and I remember one day just sitting on the side, and in one pool there was seniors’ aqua-aerobics going on, in another you had new migrants in an adult swim class, in another a mums and bubs session. You had people with disabilities, people playing and exercising … I’m not sure there’s another community space where we can gather and kind of shed their differences and inhibitions.”
That led to Rodgers approaching Kate Champion, Artistic Director of Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Company. Rodgers and Champion go back a way – she directed his play FOOD at Belvoir in 2012 and they both worked on Belvoir’s lauded production of Cloudstreet.
“I just asked her, ‘what do you think of the idea of a slice-of-life play set in a pool?’ and she kind of went for that. Initially, I thought of it being set in a conventional theatre, because that’s my world as a playwright, I guess. But Kate had other ideas.”
The Perth Festival production of The Pool will be a site-specific production, staged at Perth’s Bold Park Aquatic Centre. The audience listens into the action through headphones as the play shifts between scenarios: a mother attempting to mend a broken relationship with her adult daughter, a recovering addict; two loved-up teenagers finding privacy in a lie to their parents, and a manager facing a messy mistake from one of her employees.
“One of the joys of it is that voyeuristic thrill you get from watching and listening to people in real life,” says Rodgers. “But it’s still very theatrical. For example, you’ll hear a character speaking very conversationally about some aspect of their life, but elsewhere in the pool there will be a physical abstraction of that happening. It’s slice-of-life with a twist, something choreographed and quite beautiful.”
Rodgers’ plays – such as Ray’s Tempest (Belvoir St Theatre, MTC), Savage River (Griffin, MTC), FOOD (Belvoir St/Force Majeure), his adaptation of Peter Goldsworthy’s novel Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam and his domestic violence drama King of Pigs (Old Fitzroy Theatre) share distinct thematic stands: people wrestling their demons; fractious families coming together; characters discovering a new way to move forward.
“Looking back, I think there’s been a constant thing in my mind about parenting,” he says. “How tightly we hold on to each other, how lightly we let go. Swimming is a beautiful metaphor for that, I suppose. When we teach our kids to swim, there’s that thing where you have to let go, stop protecting them, let them float on their own.”