There are two things that happen every September in Melbourne – one is the AFL Grand Final, and the other is the Melbourne Fringe Festival. Footy and Fringe sound fairly mutually exclusive, but this year, a new stage play, The Sheds, is a collision of two very different cultures – and then some.
Written and directed by James Cunningham, The Sheds is about how a fictional AFL premier team deals with one of its players coming out as gay, and is set in the one location: the locker room, or ‘the sheds’ over the course of a footy season. Yes, it sounds like a gay man’s fantasy, and Cunningham knows that, so there will be nudity, there will be bad language, footy jumpers and shorts and Speedos, and there will be a fight – in the shower. But that’s not all that’s going on. The play also explores depression and suicide, and homophobia, of course.
It’s a change of pace for Cunningham, who’s more experienced as a filmmaker. In fact, The Sheds started life as a short film script, until he decided to rewrite it as a stage play for the Fringe Festival. “I love festivals, and the idea of an uncurated festival was liberating because it meant I could do anything I want,” says Cunningham. “I do like controversy, I like pushing people’s buttons, and I like that it puts bums on seats. And I like the fact that AFL in Melbourne is like a sacred cow. I wanted to push the idea of a gay football player.”
Gay footballers have always been controversial, even though no AFL players have come out, but Cunningham wanted to take a different view. “I got thinking that maybe in 2013 the team is more supportive of a gay player, and maybe the team has no issue with it, but it’s the manager’s fear of a public backlash, which was much more interesting to me. So this is a fictional ‘what if?’.”
“The Sheds is a private world made public,” says Cunningham. “We’re really breaking down the four walls; one of the characters is a narrator, who constantly talks to the audience. The audience is like a fly on the wall. It’s my interpretation of what goes on in an AFL locker room.”