Shari Shebbens Talks Bringing the Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner to Australia, The Moogai, and Creating Gifs in This Interview

Please note that due to the ongoing boycott of the Sydney Festival due to their acceptance of money from Israeli funding, the performance of Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner will no longer be performed within the festival. The Curb would like to take this opportunity to say that we stand behind the boycott of the festival and the artists who have made the decision to withdraw from the festival. We stand with you in solidarity.


As a proud Bardi, Jabirr-Jabirr actor on screen and stage, Shari Sebbens brings a depth of characterisation and power to her work that marks her as a legend in the making. Just you watch. After her film debut in The Sapphires (2012), she was nominated for Best Newcomer in the Sydney Theatre Awards that same year, and received the Logie for Most Outstanding New Talent the next year. I first saw her work in Top End Wedding (2019) and then more recently was blown away by her performance in Jon Bell’s First Nations horror short film The Moogai (2020) which screened as part of Sydney Film Festival this year and scored a win at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival. Shari’s talent earned her the 2020 Richard Wherrett Fellowship with Sydney Theatre Company, a program for developing directors which led to this year’s appointment as STC Resident Director.

Before those productions however, Shari is busy bringing back to Australian stages the searing British play Seven Methods Of Killing Kylie Jenner which played to sold out audiences in London and Sydney and now returns as part of Sydney Festival 2022. Nisha-Anne caught up with Shari to talk about A Raisin In The Sun, the intricacies of mounting a production in Eternity Playhouse and the value of co-directing, filming The Moogai at 2am, the joy of reaction gifs and the fraught nature of digital blackface, and the accessibility of Australian theatre. Er, we swore a bit, just so you know.


Firstly, congratulations on the STC Resident Director appointment. Are you excited?

Thank you! I’m super excited. It was just the most welcome news, and it was everything I could hope for in terms of anything any aspiring theatre director could hope for, let alone someone who just went, “You know, I’m going to give this a go. Let’s see how I level up!” (laughs)

Did that follow on straight from the Richard Wherrett Fellowship?

Yeah, it did.

I know Sydney Theatre Company has announced Act I of Season 2022, and you’ll be involved in Act II, you’re going to be directing at least two productions there. Did you get to choose?

Generally, the choosing would probably take a different process. It’s a great robust conversation with an artistic team about what plays they want to program for the year, and that’s been a really fascinating process for me to witness. Yeah, how does a theatre company decide what plays we’re doing? And I still haven’t figured out how. I’m watching them do it and I’m like “Oh my gosh, what is the formula?” There are so many things to take into account. But I’m so excited to be there at a time when shifts are happening.

Obviously this year, I did 7 Stages Of Grieving with STC and we were scheduled to do A Raisin In The Sun which has been postponed – you’re right – that’ll be the announcement for Act II. There is another play that will be returning. Yeah, I can’t speak about that one. But it is a really exciting one, trust me! (laughs)

That’s awesome. I was super excited about Raisin In The Sun. I mean, also 7 Stages of Grieving because I’ve never seen it and it’s got such an amazing history in Australian theatre and First Nations theatre. And then Raisin In The Sun because I’ve been trying to pick my moment with getting into that. I really love James Baldwin, and I’m reading up about Nina Simone, so to find out about Lorraine Hansberry [who wrote A Raisin In The Sun].

Isn’t she just one of the most fascinating and like – I mean, underrepresented here for us. I understand that actually much like 7 Stages Of Grieving, Raisin In The Sun is very much a studied piece within high schools. Every person from America I’ve spoken to is like “Yeah, we learnt it at school, we read it at school.” I think it’s had only one previous production or maybe two previous productions in Australia. Actually, it was how Uncle Jack Charles got into acting.

Oh! Brilliant!

I remember reading or hearing this recently. Yeah, he saw a flyer stuck up on a wall and I think he was staying at a men’s hostel or a youth hostel or something, and he saw the audition notice and was like, “Oh I’ll just give it a go.” So he actually played Walter Lee Younger.

Wow. I’m trying to pick my moment with watching the [1961] movie but then I’m sort of thinking, “No, no, should I wait and watch it onstage first the way it’s meant to be seen?”

Oh yeah. That’s a really good question.

Have you seen the movie?

I saw the movie when I was studying at NIDA actually. We had to read the play and watch the movie. And admittedly I haven’t watched it [since] because I knew I was doing it. And so now I’ve got space between the next production, I think I’m going to watch it now and then forget about it by the time we get back in there.

I love that.

I think also there’s so much to take from it. It’s distant enough even in acting styles and the way things have changed and shifted so much since then. I think it’s different when you’re watching something that was made two years ago.

Absolutely. I’m so excited for that. The other thing I wanted to ask you before we get into Seven Methods was The Moogai. Man! Fucken phenomenal performance. You were fucken amazing!

Thank you!

I got to watch it as part of Sydney Film Festival.

Oh cool!

I was watching it, going “Oh my god, look at Shari Sebbens! She’s fucken amazing!”

(laughs) Thank you so much. I fucken loved that, I just love that film, I love that production, I love Jon Bell’s work. That means so much to me, thank you so very much.

Andrew at The Curb interviewed Jon Bell, and Jon told this story how when they were filming that last scene and, you know, they were off at a distance and you’re screaming and everybody else was totally in tears and then you just snapped right out of it and went “Is that line okay?” And everybody else was like “What the hell, we’re all emotional and she’s just”—

(laughs) I didn’t know that!

And I even know the line that he meant because that line meant so much to me as well. When you said, between all the screaming and “No, don’t take, don’t take,” you said, “Listen to me.” Was that a line that you came up with? Do you remember?

Oh my gosh. I think that was his line but we hadn’t done it in – I wonder. I’m very hesitant to take credit for putting anything in. But that’s so funny that he remembers that, because it was like 2am, I think, or 1.30 in the morning, it was some crazy time of the night or morning as well. We were so buggered. That’s quite funny, isn’t it? How people have different experiences of these intense moments. I’m like “Yeah, do you want me to say that?” (laughs) That’s hilarious.

I’m so excited for what he’s going to do next and I hope you’ll be involved in this trilogy that he wants to do of First Nations horror stories.

I hope so. I’ve been a massive fan of Jon’s work since we did The Gods Of Wheat Street together in, god, 2012, nearly ten years ago. I’m constantly in awe of the way he wants to push boundaries for First Nations storytelling. Because of his cinephile obsessive nature and his obsession with film, when I read The Moogai script, I was like “This is stunning. Bang on. He’s hit it. He knows exactly what he wants to do.” It’s quite phenomenal. I just love when people watch The Moogai because shorts never get the credit, do they? It means a lot, thank you.

Going right back to the beginning of the Seven Methods productions, how did you get involved?

It actually came across my desk while I was in my Richard Wherrett year at STC, and I was being sent a bunch of plays by the literary manager. I picked it up and was like, “Oh my gosh, can I like have this?” I didn’t know what for, something in my brain was – I read it and thought this was amazing, it deserves to be seen immediately. Work took over and I was hanging out in Perth, filming The Heights actually. And Moreblessing Maturure who is one of the lead actors in Seven Methods – she sent me a text message, “Hey, this is very random but now that you’re a Richard Wherrett fellow at STC, Gemma Bird Matheson and myself” – Gemma’s a young actor-writer who, I think, has just gone to LA to do some cool stuff with her work.

Anyway, they were besties and they approached me and asked if I would direct them in something at an independent season at Belvoir. And I was like, “Yeah, sure thing.” They said, “Yeah, we’ve just got to find a two-hander now.” And then I remembered Seven Methods and was like, “This! It’s got to be this!” and sent it and waited, hoping that they responded [to it] in the same way I did, and they absolutely did.

So from there, we worked with Green Door Productions to pop it on at downstairs Belvoir, and then 2020 happened, and it was like “What the hell? Where is everything? What are we doing?” What occurred to us and what became evident to us was after the year of 2020, people [were] realising that whilst a pandemic can happen, racism is also still the root of so much injustice and inequality in this world, and that doesn’t stop for anybody.

We then found that the importance of the piece bubbled even more to the top in a way. Everybody really believed in it, and we were able to take it to Darlinghurst Theatre Company who then said, “Instead of an independent season for two or three weeks in a little space, let’s give you a mainstage season at Darlinghurst in whatever capacity that looks like.” And so yeah, we took a gamble on it being as shit-hot as we thought it was going to be. It was, and it’s worked out incredibly well for Jasmine Lee-Jones’ work to be seen by more Australian audiences with a remount, for the actors to be seen, but mostly for the audience and the community that this play invites in, to have a chance to delve into that world.

And Moreblessing is a kick-arse performer. She’s someone I’ve been really proud to witness the growth in talent over this production period. She’s absolutely the glue of this piece so I’m really glad that she’s able to come back for us. And I have to state that she is very cool. Very cool.

You’re co-directing Seven Methods with Zindzi Okenyo. What’s the co-directing relationship like? Do you have a specific division of labour, or is it kind of really dynamic bouncing off each other?

Yeah, it’s more that. At the moment, it’s something that we’re both extremely passionate and excited about because it’s not a model that is often used or even thought about, especially in the theatre world where things feel very rigid and you must do things a certain way, and usually it’s old white men who tell you how it has to be done.

When we discovered it, it came about because Zindzi was such an integral part of the first production and we’ve got to honour people’s time and we’ve got to honour people’s input and value them. So how can we do that going forward? And actually that part of it sort of came second. We realised throughout the production last year that we just loved working together, and we communicate really well together, and that our understanding of leadership is that it doesn’t need to be the hierarchical colonial kind of concept that we’ve been sold. That there is a leadership model that looks like shared responsibilities and shared weight and shared joy. It’s a philosophy we’re still figuring out but I’m so thankful for it. I know we both feel really strongly about it.

And it’s undeniably to do with the fact that we’re both women of colour, myself as an Aboriginal woman, Zindzi as a Black woman in Australia. It’s definitely driven by our understanding of the world, and it suited us so well and we’re kind of itching around to figure out how we can continue it and what it looks like in other iterations.

Did you happen to catch Every Brilliant Thing at Belvoir?

I didn’t, no…

I only mention it because I saw Kate Mulvany performing it and then Steve Rodgers doing it. And then just by chance, I stumbled across the New York iteration which was performed by the co-writer, Jonny Donahoe. What was interesting to me when I was watching the New York performance was there were very specific American references that were not in the Australian performance. And I was wondering in terms of Seven Methods, it’s a British text by a woman of colour and I know it has very specific references to online life. Did you find that the playtext allowed you to infuse an Australianness and the First Nations perspective there?

No, not really. I spoke to Jasmine maybe eighteen months ago now about the play, and Jasmine was like “Oh, are you going to do the accents?” I said, “I don’t know at the moment.” And then we read it and I went, “All right, let’s just see how this sits in the mouths of the actors without doing the accents that are written onto the page.” And it’s like Tennessee Williams, but the way that’s accessible to most people, that Southern kind of rhythm and drawl.

People would probably assume with a very contemporary Black British play coming out of 2019 London that you could change it around because it’s contemporary or it’s modern. But it’s so of its place, and it’s one of those great examples of when specificity makes something more universal. When you focus on the micro, the macro steps in.

So with the specificity comes universality, and that was something we were so thankful for. And it just meant as long as the actors know what they’re saying, the audience – you know when you’re watching something with subtitles and you’re like “Yeah, I can kind of get what they’re saying without even looking at [the subtitles]”? Like, it’s that kind of vibe?

Yeah.

Because especially the internet language, man, like for anyone over thirty even, dare I say even twenty-five, it is rough out there! (laughs) So we have an online program and there’s a glossary in the back. You know, because phrases are repeated so often and everyone comes out, going, “What does KMT mean? Or what does BMT mean?”

I was kind of surprised, actually. There were a couple of questions about what abbreviations might mean but everybody was like, “Yeah, I understood it, I got it, I got it.”

What does KMT mean?

Kiss my teeth. (laughs)

Oh! (laughs)

You know the little – the sound.

Oh, that! Yes!

It’s the sound that like aunties and mums make all over the world, I feel. Specifically, yeah.

Now that you’ve talked about online culture, that play was written at a specific time. Have you felt the need to update it to 2021? Because I mean Kim and Kanye have broken up since the play was written.

Oh! I know… oh my gosh. I didn’t even think about that.

And she’s like with Pete Davidson now.

Oh my god, I know, she’s going through a white boy phase. Aah! I was really worried that the [cultural presence of the] Kardashian-Jenner family would encroach upon the piece more than they did in rehearsal rooms but they didn’t. So great. We kind of got bored of them really quickly and it was like they served their [media] function within the role, so thank you but no thank you.

But no, what was really interesting when we came to it last year was actually TikTok. TikTok was around but it wasn’t what it is today. I’m absolutely certain that Jasmine has very strong opinions that are like correct opinions about the hijacking of young Black people’s artistry and intellectual property through choreography and things like that.

That amazing week in the world where young Black creatives stopped choreographing TikTok dances and suddenly the white kids didn’t have anything to make them go viral. And then there was a movement, people were literally sending messages like, “Don’t do any choreography to this song. Stop it, don’t create anything, don’t give them any content.” Because I think it came about after that episode where Jimmy Fallon had Addison

Yes. I remember that.

Had her on the show and then just sent a Zoom link to the actual creators a week later. And I think it came out of response to that. Let’s see how far this mob get without our work. So I’m sure Jasmine would have something to say about that and would love to perhaps infuse that into the play somehow.

But no, we’ve found that actually because people are still using gifs or memes, the language of the internet is still very relevant and still very present in the same context and meaning. It’s able to just kick on and do its thing. It’s quite phenomenal how it feels when you’re watching it that you’re like “Oh this happened today, this is happening right now.”

That’s fair enough. And I mean, I love gifs, I make my own gifs as well.

Oh, do you?

I do that thing of “There is no reaction gif for the emotion I am feeling right now.”

(laughs)

“I will make it myself!”

I love it. One of my friends, Davey Thompson, was in All My Friends Are Racist, the web-series. And like we have just been going ham with the gifs from his [show]. We’re like, “This is a gift to the world!” (laughs) There are so many good moments in there, Davey’s face is so expressive. It’s so fun having people you know that you can use them for your little reaction.

Even that in and of itself, that was a massive conversation and still is. You know, white people coming out of the theatre, going “Oh I didn’t realise I was partaking in digital blackface.” It’s just amazing, Jasmine has fit so much into this one hour and ten minute production. What it’s about? What isn’t it about, man? There’s so much happening. This young woman has gone, “I’m going to put my whole life [onstage].” And it’s amazing, the multitudes and complexity that one person can carry and present onstage in a way that is accessible and entertaining and hilarious and heartbreaking. Writers! I’m in awe of them.

Aren’t you a writer too, Shari? Don’t you write as well?

I’m dipping my toe in the water at the moment. (laughs)

Awesome. I’d be very interested to see what you come out with, like fully your voice.

Me too! (laughs) It’s cool to know that people might be interested. I’m interested, too. I genuinely am trying to figure out – yeah, there’s a little thing happening.

Awesome. With the gifs, I know that obviously the gifs would have been within the playtext, which gifs to use when onstage. In terms of stagecraft, so far you guys have only been in Eternity Playhouse. You haven’t actually managed to do the Belvoir space yet. How did you use the space of the Eternity Playhouse? Was it difficult?

I mean, it was a bit of a workaround because the Eternity is an old church. So it’s got great acoustics, not great architecture in terms of staging. There’s a whole back end of the theatre that you have to put a big black curtain in front of or very deliberately use because it sort of turns into a little enclave. So we wondered how we could create a world that sits within this space and acknowledges – I mean, there’s a great moment at the end when the lights come up and everybody’s exposed within the theatre and you’re sitting there.

During matinees, we’d bring the screens up on the windows and so the light would come streaming in through these stained glass windows, and we’re in a church, we’re in like the most colonial Christian church. It would do things to your mind, just thinking about everything that you’ve witnessed onstage.

But we’ve actually amazingly somehow just purely by accident designed a show that we can take on the road. At the time, we weren’t really thinking about tourability at all. So yeah, it will live back at Darlinghurst in January. And then it will live in La Boite [in Brisbane] and then it will live at Malthouse [in Melbourne]. So it’ll be really interesting taking it into all those different spaces.

But in terms of design, we’ve chosen to use a projection screen to project the gifs. I know in the London production, they don’t, it’s purely the actors acting out [the gifs].

Oh!

Yeah! So we came to that conclusion really based on – Australia is so far behind in things like critical race theory discussions and identity discussions that the whole point of digital blackface would be lost on them. And you can feel the point in the play where people go “Oh. Ohhh, I’ve done that. I’ve said these, I’ve used these and I’m not a person of colour. I’m a white woman or I’m a white man or I’m a gay white man.” You know? So it’s quite amazing having to navigate the conversation within the broader conversation of Australia.

I know this is a very specific point because I use a lot of gifs and I find that – I’m Indian, by the way – and every now and then I would wonder, I keep using that gif of the Black guy from The Office because I love the way he laughs.

Yeah, Stanley?

Stanley, yes! And every now and then I would think, “Am I deliberately using a gif of a Black man laughing? Does that make me racist?” Buying into that idea of Black men [as caricatures]. One thing I definitely never like to use is Black people being scared. You know?

Totally. And that’s the big thing in Jasmine’s work is there’s a bibliography at the end with a list of all the gifs and all the memes that are used and who they are. And that’s that conversation, it’s like “Why do I feel like it’s okay” – I think that’s a big problem as well – you know, white women in Australia using Black women from reality shows in America. Like do you even know this person’s name? Do you even know what circumstances led to this viral moment or this iconic and very identifiable expression? Like you said, is it fear? Is it exploitation? Probably, yes.

And buying into that colonial representation of people of colour presented in media in a certain way, where they’re either diminished or they’re bordering on minstrelsy kind of thing. You know?

Yes, totally! Oh god, yeah.

But then I kind of wonder because you’re talking about white people. But then how does it work with us as people of colour but we’re not Black American?

Yeah, totally. You know, I became aware of the digital blackface conversation years ago and that’s only because of the Black academics, writers, thinkers, creatives, artists, people who are incredible at using Twitter as a platform to have massive conversations. And that’s the only way I became aware of digital blackface because of the people I follow on Twitter.

I’m a bit sort of old school, I just use a couple of emojis, that’s me. But I remember being like, “Oh fuck yeah. Am I part of this problematic behaviour? Have I been in the past? Probably 100%. When I learnt better, did I continue to engage in that? No.”

And I’m Aboriginal but I’m of very fair skin. I have white privilege in this world. I have no idea what it’s like to be judged, based on the colour of my skin. And my experience in Australia is very different to your experience in Australia. Mine has its own complexities around my Indigeneity and First Nations, you know, the ongoing colonial project.

But the play is kind of great in this way. I think what it does so beautifully is it opens up conversations for everyone. Yeah, like you say, non-Black people of colour questioning their own participation, their own actions, their own patterns of behaviour. And that’s quite powerful when a piece can do that when it’s not speaking directly to your experience. So you’re invited in to think about somebody else outside of your own world.

Absolutely. And I love that Australian theatre is making a space for pieces like that. I mean, it’s still a struggle against the institutions of old white male – I mean, I love Tennessee Williams for his portrayals of queerness and mental health issues. But yeah, I often wonder, “Can we not get another Tennessee Williams play?”

I know! And you’re like, “Can we also take out all the N-words?”

Yeah!

Like don’t say it. Or if you’re going to say it, yeah, fucken say it and then talk about it. Like don’t pretend it’s – the assumption that “Oh, that’s the history.” No! People are still using it in that way so you must address that.

Yeah, and also if you use it onstage, you’re legitimising them using it offstage.

I think so.

So what’s next for you? You’re going into doing Seven Methods, you’re going into that season. Are you going to tour with it?

Yeah. I will be touring with some of it. And again purely by accidental design, Zindzi and I falling into a co-directorship means that we’re both able to be there when the other person can’t. And that would have just changed our employment landscape drastically, had we not been in this partnership. And what it’s meant now is we’re both now able to have other projects that we’re working on that we’re able to say yes to because the other person’s holding it down here. That’s an amazing gift.

Yeah, I’ve got my productions that will be with Sydney Theatre Company next year. Seven Methods. And I’m cooking something up that I can’t really talk about. I’m just like, “When are they going to let me talk about this?” It’s a project that I have created.

It’ll be so exciting.

We’re so excited to take Seven Methods to Parramatta. Yeah, come and watch it. People are really scared when you talk about racism, homophobia, bigotry, prejudice, colonialism, oppression. But Australia has so much catching up to do that they’re going to rock up and see this play and realise this isn’t something to be afraid of. This is something to actually engage in if you want to live a meaningful life, really.

And I love the fact that Sydney Festival has taken it on, the prestige of Sydney Festival, and then not just in Darlinghurst but taking it out to Parramatta and taking it out to places that breaks down that elitism of theatre.

Yes, 100%. I’m all for how do we make theatre more accessible?

I know, right?

I think we can do better. And I know for a fact – I’ve actually have had dinner with, sat with, talked to, met in the bar after, several people who came to see 7 Stages Of Grieving because they saw Seven Methods Of Killing Kylie Jenner.

Oh!

Because there is always this assumption that it’s just a money thing, it’s this weirdly racist assumption that Black and brown people can’t afford theatre tickets. And no, people of colour can afford tickets. What are you giving these audiences, these communities? So yeah, it’s exactly Sydney Festival realising that there’s a community there that needs this representation, that will turn up for this show.

Darlinghurst Theatre Company has done a really incredible job at making that foyer even accessible, with Fling Festival. There’s a live artist in the foyer after [the shows] who will be performing, there’s a little DJ set, there’s a live artist set, there’s cocktails, there’s a photo wall. It’s so fun, and it’s a way for people to just let go after the show and hang out with each other. Yeah, it’s really good fun.

Purchase Tickets for the Fling Festival here.

We also have a really excellent community engagement team with Seven Methods, the phenomenal community engagement team with 2 Sydney Stylists. One of our fucken awesome ways of engaging audiences is the Pay It Forward system so people can buy a ticket when they’re there, chuck in for a ticket, and then the theatre offers that to somebody else. It’s about getting communities of colour, people of colour who have never been to the theatre.

Awesome. Thanks so much, Shari!

Thank you for the lovely chat!


See Seven Methods Of Killing Kylie Jenner as part of Sydney Festival 2022 at Riverside Theatre in Parramatta from 6-9 January, and then 12 January – 20 February at Eternity Playhouse, and then Brisbane in February to March, and Melbourne in July to August.

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