Check your emotional baggage at the door because this self-described gang of queers, singles, and divorcees is going on holiday.

Hugh has organised a fabulous weekend away for his partner and their best girlfriends in Hepburn’s finest to escape a year from hell. But even deli meats, medicinal hydroponics and soaking in spring water can’t fix everything. Try as you might to float on the surface, life has a funny way of bubbling up—and over. Because when shit hits the fan it’s your chosen family who’ll clean you up—once they’ve stopped laughing. So pack an overnighter and enjoy the only safe seat on a getaway you won’t want to get away from. This Is Living!

Ash Flanders | Photo by Phoebe Powell

Writer Ash Flanders is notorious for crafting caustic comedy that makes you laugh ‘til you hurt, only this time he’s gone somewhere completely unexpected… the real world.

This semi-autobiographical play is the saltiest, sweetest, and most honest look at love and friendship you’ll see. Ash is a multi-award winning playwright and screenwriter from sunny Melbourne. In 2006, he and Declan Greene formed theatre company Sisters Grimm and together they have written a dozen shows including Summertime in the Garden of Eden (Theatre Works, Griffin Theatre), Little Mercy (STC), The Sovereign Wife (MTC), Calpurnia Descending (Malthouse/STC), and Lilith: The Jungle Girl (MTC). Ash has also created the solo shows Meme Girls (Malthouse), Special Victim (Feast Festival), Playing to Win (Arts Centre Melbourne), Ash Flanders is NOTHING, End Of (Darebin Speakeasy), as well as SS Metaphor at The Malthouse Theatre.

What was the catalyst for turning this story into a show?

Ash: This show came from someone asking the dreaded question, “What are you working on next?” which got me thinking about the New Year’s Eve I’d had just a few months earlier. I realised it had all the ingredients to make a play unlike anything I’d ever written before and the challenge of that really excited me.

How is This is Living different from your previous shows (tonally, stylistically, etc.)?

Ash: I’ve made a lot of shows that are formally adventurous, metatheatrical, loud, ironic and – while deeply stupid – plays that try to subversively say something about the world at large. The exciting thing about This is Living is that it’s kinda the opposite of all that. I’m using the most formally conservative structure in theatre, Five-Act naturalism, and the subversion comes from putting characters that aren’t often the focus of these classic plays – middle-aged gay men and women in their 50s – front and centre. I was so excited by the limitations of the form and the challenge of writing dialogue that naturally flows while also revealing tensions, moving the story along and relating to the larger themes of the play. I’ve dropped the irony – maybe only briefly – and tried to write honestly about the people I love.

What were the challenges in writing a semi-autobiographical piece?

Ash: The only challenge was working out which pieces of real life were useful to the play and which pieces weren’t. The great part about writing a semi-autobiographical play is that you come with an understanding of relationship histories and possible tensions which you can then manipulate and expand on. I know how my friend’s speak, so it was very easy for me to sit in my wardrobe (I live in a tiny apartment, don’t ask) and imagine what they’d say. Also, my friends happen to be incredibly funny, so I didn’t have to worry about my imaginary versions being dull – I could watch them all day. A highlight of the writing process was sitting down with the ‘real’ friends and doing a reading where we all played ourselves. What homosexual hasn’t dreamed of doing something like that?

Why is it important to tell stories like this, and why now?

Ash: There can be a tendency to only call plays important if they deal with current social or political issues that audiences can either agree or disagree with. And I do think plays like that are very important. But I also think there’s real value in seeing shows that remind us of our own humanity, with fallible, complicated characters you can relate to dealing with smaller but more universal struggles around friendship, love and death. When my partner was sick I found myself drawn to comforting tearjerker films like Steel Magnolias, Postcards from the Edge and Beaches. These movies mined the tragedy of real life but did it with characters you loved and made me feel less alone when I needed it most. I think that should always be a goal in theatre.

Can you sum up the plot of This is Living in one sentence?

Ash: Five friends try to have a decent New Year’s in Hepburn Springs but death keeps getting in the way.

This Is Living is playing at the Malthouse Theatre until July 30th.

For tickets and more information, visit the Malthouse website.

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