Mill Theatre at Dairy Road ensure ideas through art and artistry through practice grow in their production of Reasons to be Pretty
By Karena Blake
Reasons To Be Pretty will soon adorn the stage of Canberra’s newest arts venue, Mill Theatre at Dairy Road in Fyshwick.
Starting with a volatile opening scene, the play transports the audience to an intimate setting in a small middle-American town. We get up-close and personal with two couples—Greg (Rhys Hekimian), Steph (Alana Denham-Preston), Kent (Ryan Erlandsen), and Carly (Lexi Sekuless)—as they navigate a toxic environment.
The audience is asked to ponder as the characters reflect on their own lives, the collective concept of beauty, and the common question: How much is pretty worth?
Reasons To Be Pretty is a true-to-script presentation of Neil LaBute’s first Broadway play. Producer, actor, and Mill Theatre overseer, Lexi Sekuless, wants the production to reflect Canberra’s performing arts environment, whilst showing off what the newly created space can house.
Meeting with Lexi and Director Tim Sekuless at this very space to find out more, I find Tim seated in the studio’s performance space.
“The plan for the set is a kind of ‘industrial minimalism’, with concrete walls, raw materials, and brutalist style furniture,” Tim explains. “The intimacy of the space will allow the audience to be seated up close to the play’s colourful characters, permitting an immersion into their lives as we follow their journey.
“That prop will be central to the mechanics of the stage,” he says, pointing to an orange brutalist style chair. It’s a gift from a nearby Dairy Road business. Lexi is keen to expand:
“As soon as I noticed the chair looking discarded at the back of the building, I knew it held a history,” she reveals. “It has the raw qualities I need to bring to the production. So I asked the owner if I could borrow it!”
For her, the brutalist style chair has taken on potent symbolism. It represents a sturdiness, exuding a striking and simple strength that Lexi needs from the production team and the cast.
This thinking lends itself to the original decision on choice of play.
“I had chosen LaBute’s Reasons To Be Pretty specifically because it poses the question: Why do we keep going when things get tough? It provides both the performers, and the audience, with an opportunity to reflect on this question in their own lives.”
It’s a timely mental practice for the current times.
“The performing arts industry took a hit during the height of the pandemic,” Lexi says. “It created a collective low resilience amongst performers and made it difficult to commit to a performance even post-Covid.”
By keeping true to the language of the text, the performance brings an American-style laugh-out-loud humour. Concurrently, it challenges the cross-societal issue of superficiality shared within Australian popular culture.
“What I like about this dialogue-rich play is that it’s littered with literary references about US authors,” Tim chimes in. “Keeping true to the text provides a glimpse into an American slice of life.”
Indeed, to remain truly consistent with the original script, Tim and Lexi went the extra distance.
“We brought in an accent coach to ensure the cast has the same US style twang,” Lexi says, “We want to be representative of the characters’ small town origins.”
Far from being strictly American in content, the play allows the audience to access and connect with another side of Australian life, that of living in a country town or an outlying suburb.
Universally appealing, the plot centres around four young working-class friends comprising two couples who recognise their increasing dissatisfaction with their lives, and each other. A misunderstood comment about the attractiveness of one of them sparks a captivating series of musings. The plot and the age of the characters intends to resonate with young people, as well as those who are still growing in life, in (or out of) a relationship, and beyond.
The newness of the Mill Theatre and the Players Ensemble model, combined with the limited opportunities for the development of theatrical arts in Canberra, see the production team admit to some of their own growing pains in the initial stage of casting.
“I think we needed to go through a period of ‘adulting’,” Lexi identifies, “to emerge with a team of people willing to work and commit to doing the brutal ‘hard yards’ in the creative industries.”
Like the principles embedded in the company, Lexi and Tim have built this show around emerging and independent actors, as well as stage and sound design crew, with an aim to build and support the growth of live Canberra theatre. Every member of the production team provides ‘shadow’ opportunities to emerging industry artists, with a view to mentoring them for the next production.
Speaking of which! There are already plans for the Mill Theatre to present LaBute’s sequel Reasons To Be Happy early next year. Set three years later, the sequel follows the same four characters, this time searching for that elusive happiness, asking the question: Is society’s obsession with material aesthetics holding them back in their lives?
So be sure to engross yourself in the start of the journey! And in the spirit of development, a week of Reasons to be Pretty previews are offered at an affordable ticket price to further grow the performance in time for the official three-week season.
As Lexi concludes: “With Reasons To Be Pretty this year, and the expectation of Reasons To be Happy next year, Mill Theatre is establishing a reputation for exciting live theatre and bringing a new dimension to Canberra’s already dynamic theatre scene.”
Reasons To Be Pretty is on at Mill Theatre at Dairy Road. The preview week spans Wednesday, 12 April to Saturday, 15 April. The official season is on Wednesday, 19 April to Saturday, 6 May. Tickets available now via Humanitix.