Steve Pirie, playwright, Return to the Dirt

Tell people how you feel about them, because they will hold that in their heart for longer than you think ...

Most of us work in a variety of part-time occupations during our mid-20s. Some work in bars or cafes, while others embark on apprenticeships. Steve Pirie spent a year working as a funeral director. This unusual experience – that is, working among the dead – formed an indelible impression on the young playwright, who channelled this period of his life into the framework of his award-winning play Return to the Dirt, which is being staged by Queensland Theatre Company from Saturday October 16 to Saturday November 6. Imbued with a sense of compassion and warmth, the tale not only adds a touch of lightness to a sombre subject, but also looks to encourage more comfortable dialogue surrounding what happens when our time is up. We spoke to Steve about the creation of this piece of gravely humorous theatre and the lessons he hopes it leaves with us …

We’d love to start with your interest in the production side of the dramatic arts. Do you recall any formative experiences that sparked your love of theatre?
I think I’ve always been driven to storytelling. Just the other day I managed to find a collection of books from grade two that I had filled with short stories, mostly about dinosaurs and how socks are made. Luckily, I’ve broadened my horizons since then and it wasn’t until I saw theatre in high school for my drama classes that I realised the power of live storytelling. And of course, The Wiggles live goes off. Still does.

When did writing, particularly crafting stories for the stage, become an area of interest for you?
I was lucky to have a few mentors in my teenage years who really drove home for me that if I didn’t see the stories I wanted onstage already, then I was better off making those stories myself. It was invaluable, particularly for a kid like me that desperately wanted the lead roles in musical theatre despite having no actual talent for singing. I found out that my calling was to make worlds for other actors to live in, instead.

We’d love to get some insight on the differences between playwriting and penning tales for other mediums – what is the biggest thing one must consider when writing for the stage compared to writing for other narrative formats?
That it will never be exactly how appears in your head. The joy that comes with writing for theatre is that there is a team of people that you give your trust to so that they can help you build the world together. We can also play with time and space much more than other art forms. A film that requires a scene set on a beach needs thousands of extra dollars, location scouting and a few days of shooting. To set a scene on a beach in the theatre is a lighting change and maybe some sound.

We hear that your latest play, Return to the Dirt, is informed by a particularly interesting time in your life. Can you give us an insight into the circumstances and personal experiences that inspired this story?
I finished Return to the Dirt after I finished living it. The story is based on my own experiences as a man in my mid-20s returning to my hometown with no job or money, and firmly in the sands of a quarter-life crisis. The play is a love letter to the people and the world I lived in while working for a local funeral home, where I spend a year with the dead and dying, and how it would shape my (after)life.

Return to the Dirt imbues its tale, which revolves around a funeral home, with a sense of humanity and humour. How did you approach translating this profession (one typically seen as a sombre occupation) to the stage and conveying it in an accurate, yet humanising and engaging, way?
The important thing for me is to reproduce the experience of a funeral director with as much empathy and compassion as possible. It’s an odd space to occupy — you work with people while they live in the space between a death and a funeral. It was a matter of just drawing on as many of my own memories as possible and using them in a way that welcomes audiences in with warmth.

Were there any misconceptions about the funeral industry and those that work within it that you were eager to dispel with your play?
How long is a piece of string? I think mostly that the job is both extraordinary and very ordinary at the same time. You spend most of your time waiting for things to happen. That we steal from bodies. That we’re fixated on death. That we are goths (even though I’m sure there are goth funeral directors). But it’s more important for me to confirm some truths too, most importantly that most funeral directors are warm, compassionate people that are driven to work with people in the hardest time in their lives, but unfortunately compassion can only be extended so far in a corporate structure. My own moral struggles with this are reflected in the story I tell.

What sort of discussions do you hope Return to the Dirt prompts its audience to have after their viewing experience?
Just to talk about it. About what you want when you die, so that it’s one less decision for your family to make. It was all too often that families would sit with me and ask ‘what happens now?’ After seeing this play, you’ll know what happens, and I hope you feel empowered to make the choices that you want, not anybody else.

In addition to providing inspiration for Return to the Dirt itself, did your time spent working as a funeral director give you any lessons that have shaped or impacted any other aspects of your life?
After leaving, it took me a long time to stop being angry at people. It was hard to finish a day of three or four funerals and stand in line at Coles watching someone shout at a cashier about the price of milk. So I would say this — know that you exist right now, and there is no guarantee that says you will tomorrow — many people who I did funerals probably thought the same thing. You’re not that special, and that can make you feel very small, or very big. It’s up to you. Tell people how you feel about them, because they will hold that in their heart for longer than you think. And don’t be a dick.

Return to the Dirt by Queensland Theatre Company will be performed at the Bille Brown Theatre from Saturday October 16 to Saturday November 6. Grab your tickets at the Queensland Theatre website.

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