Earlier this month White Box Theatre Company and KXT Kings Cross Theatre hosted the world premiere of Dead Skin a new work by emerging playwright and actress Laneikka Denne. My review of the premiere can be found here. I recently sat down with writer and star Laneikka Denne, and director Kim Hardwick, to chat about developing new work, the importance of queer representation, and telling authentic stories about young people.
Please note, this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Hi, thank you so much for meeting me. Congratulations on the show and congratulations on selling out.
How would you both describe Dead Skin to someone who knows nothing about it?
Laneikka: What I’ve learnt during rehearsals is it’s like a really dark and fucked love letter to my mom and like, love itself. Someone described it to me as an energy field, the energy of being 17. So, you’re going to sit in your seats and feel the energy of being 17 for 90 minutes and know what that feels like and just be in a boxing match of that for a little bit.
Kim: I think it’s also about identity and the identity of the ensemble of women in the play. So, I think for me looking at it, that was part of what I wanted to get across as well. Yes, the central character is Andy, but there are these other women that play very complimentary roles in the storytelling.
Dead Skin is a coming-of-age story and it’s also kind of a story about first love. Do you two have any coming-of-age stories that inspired you?
Laneikka: No! I think that’s why I wrote it, because I was just so sick of everything being like “if you’re 17, then you must not understand your sexuality”, and you must be like “oh I don’t know if I’m queer or not blah blah blah’’ and have to come out to your parents and it be a big deal.
I just wanted to write something where everyone is just in their own element. If you’re queer, you’re queer. If you’re not, you’re not. It doesn’t matter— that’s not the point of it.
I wouldn’t necessarily call Dead Skin a typical coming-of-age story, it’s more about all of the characters working things out about themselves. Because I think everyone’s going through a coming-of-age period. Everyone’s learning something new all the time.
So you didn’t want to copy the traditional tropes of a coming of age genre?
Laneikka: I’ve just never felt represented on stage or in film, in my experiences and what I was going through. And I just wanted to write the people that I knew, whether that be someone who is a teenager, or whether it be Audrey (a character in her twenties). She’s not a teenager but she’s still having her own coming-of-age moment, because we all are. So I just wanted to write a coming-of-age story that is about everyone coming of age, rather than just being about teenagers.
Kim: And I think we can all agree that, traditionally, coming of age stories are often really watered down to the lowest common denominator, and that they seem to remove any sense of uniqueness, to the circumstances of that particular character. I was really desperate to get away from that stuff.
So the specificity of Andie and her circumstances—being young, Australian, queer—those were all really important? That it didn’t feel universal, it felt like you were capturing a really specific experience?
Kim: Absolutely! Yep— specific to these very experiences. Which doesn’t mean to say that the play doesn’t speak to somebody, over on the other side of the country or on the other side of the world. But I was really clear, in my head anyway, to not make it that very traditional, heartache first love story.
Looking at the critical reception and social media, a lot of young queer women have felt very validated about having their stories told on stage. How does that feel to you?
Laneikka: That’s what it’s made for!
I haven’t read the critical reception but the little bit that I’ve seen proves the point of this play. This play is not written for the theatre community. If theatre industry people enjoy it, that’s great—good for them. But to me, in my heart, it makes me so happy that people who aren’t involved in theatre are seeing it.
There’s so many people seeing this as their first play and that brings me so much joy. Teenagers who have never seen a play before, or they’ve only seen a Shakespeare, they come in and say “Hey, you’ve represented me on stage”. That’s why I wrote the play…When I feel audience investment, that’s all I can ask for from this, that people feel heard.
Like the critics can do whatever they want and they can think whatever they want, they can analyse this for whatever it is. But to me, that is the joy of it, that there are people who feel like they’ve been heard now. And I hope to continue that in all of my work.
I see a lot of theatre in Sydney and I was kind of shocked by how many people in the audience were young people in their teens and twenties. It felt really refreshing and quite rare.
Was that clear in the creation of the show, that you need young people to see this story?
Kim: Yeah, we were always very aware of who we would like the audience to be. I mean, you can’t force people to come along, but we always had a point of view about who the story was being told for and who we’d like the audience to be. It’s interesting actually, because a lot of the audiences that are coming in are people that I would never have seen in theatre up to this point. Usually, you just see the same old people rolling through, which is really unfortunate and horrible. But it’s been actually really refreshing to see new faces there and have a new kind of engagement with it, with theatre. Not to necessarily just sort of sit there and have to “behave” through a story…
Laneikka: That’s so true!
Kim:…Which is sometimes—look I’m not saying this about all theatre—sometimes perhaps a little bland or a little bit polite. For young people to be able to really engage with what’s going on, I think that’s been great.
Laneikka you wrote the play and you also star in it. What was the rehearsal room like? Did you have urges to make writing changes or did you try and just strictly be an actress?
Laneikka: (Laughs) Whatever Kim says, goes, most of the time! She’ll go “So what do you think about this” and I’ll be like “Cut it! Get rid of it! You need a change? Okay I’ll rewrite it!” I’m really chill as a playwright— I think it’s because I’m an actor. So, when there’s things that I can’t see from my own head, that aren’t landing, or are making it confusing for the audience, Kim is one to be like “No this doesn’t make sense”. Because she thinks as an audience member all the time. So, when she’s pointing out things like, “Oh, let’s make it more direct so the audience can understand”, of course I’m going to take that on!
That’s what I love about theatre, it’s a whole collaborative process and I’ve had all these amazing professionals around me that are very established. And I’m quite early on in my career, so having them come on and be like, “No, this is how we mould it”, there’s no need to fight back! I’m just thankful that I have these professionals that can also see what I’m trying to do and find the best way to do it.
Kim: I mean the discussion in the room about “changing” things, there wasn’t actually all that much change for a new work. This is what, fifth or sixth draft?
Laneikka: Yeah, fifth draft I think.
Kim: So obviously we had some discussions up to that about certain things during the drafts. And, so there wasn’t much to change it was kind of tweaks here and there. I just think that when you’re working on new work, it’s really important as a director that you honour that playwright’s voice. It’s very easy to go “I’m having trouble with this so I’m just going to change it”. And I’m not saying that this was smooth sailing for me, but one of the reasons you want to do it is because there’s something about it that attracts you. And you’ve got to keep your integrity around all that decision making.
I just think that when you’re working on new work, it’s really important as a director that you honour that playwright’s voice. It’s very easy to go “I’m having trouble with this so I’m just going to change it”.Kim Hardwick, Director
Kim, you joked earlier that you were sick of Shakespeare. So new work—that’s a particular passion for you as a director?
Kim: Yeah, I love new work. I don’t get to do it a lot, but that’s kind of the thing that I actually get excited about the most. I’m not a great one for the classics, which doesn’t mean to say that I don’t do them and I don’t find them very valuable as a learning tool. But, I think one of the things that we need to strive for is always placing new work on the stage.
“One of the things that we need to strive for is always placing new work on the stage.”Kim Hardwick, Director
Unfortunately, here in Australia, I reckon new work gets on the stage too early, often. There’s not enough time in developing it. It tends to be like “Oh, that’s a good idea, let’s rush it on!”. I think always having new stories is just sort of vital for keeping a theatre alive! Because our audiences are changing all the time, so why are we going back to something that happened 25 years ago?
And I love it when people go, “Oh, It’s a new take!” and all that kind of stuff. And it’s actually not at all, it’s the same play, but it’s just got different paint on the set.
I think that’s about all my questions. Thank you for chatting with me today!
Laneikka can next be found on stage in a National touring production of ATYP’s ‘Follow Me Home’ about youth homelessness. She is also developing her second play with assistance from Q theatre in Western Sydney.
Kim will be directing again soon, with an upcoming play at the Seymour Centre in the works. You can follow her work with her theatre company, White Box Theatre Company, here.