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Fringe Series: The Sheds

Australian Rules football is one of the most watched and most masculine sports, and is one of only few sporting codes in the country to not have an openly gay athlete; the issue of tackling homophobia in AFL has long been a highly conten­tious issue.

The Sheds, writer/director James Cunningham’s contribution to this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival, attempts to address the homosexuality in AFL and the wider world of sports.

This one-hour long three-man play depicts the story of Darren An­derson (Patrick Chirico), the star player for the fictional Fitzroy Fighters who comes out to the media with grand hopes of being accepted by his teammates and fans.

“While the topic of how public figures ‘come out’ in the media and how it’s received is something that interests me, locker room culture is something that I love to observe and study” says Cunnigham on what inspired him to write The Sheds.

“Men can act very different in the locker room.”

Set entirely within the confines of a locker room, The Sheds looks at how Darren’s teammates Liam and Jimmy (Ludwik Exposto and Andii Mulders, respectively) react to the news of his homosexuality.

Liam is the typical can-do-no-wrong team captain who openly accepts Darren’s sexuality, whereas Jimmy is an irrational and mentally troubled teammate who reacts with a mixture of anger, for not being told by Darren earlier and jealousy, for his new media fame.

“If a player were to come out years after all the other players had formed close bonds with him, then all the trust is broken, suspicion is born, and many close fraternal bonds have to be rebuilt,” he says.

“Those friendships are built on trust, truths and courage.

“But coming out to the media is a different story.”

The issue of homosexuality in sports has long been very controver­sial, especially in the media. Long have gay rights advocates espoused ideas of equality, but it has been a slower process for these ideas to merge with the mainstream values of society. This could be as sport has so long been seen as highly masculine in nature.

With mounting pressure on all sporting codes to become more in­clusive of gay athletes, there has also been much public debate surround­ing the culture of sport and whether there is the support for gay players to feel safe coming out

The low point of this ongoing debate was when former AFL player Jason Akermanis, in a 2010 column in the Herald Sun, warned gay AFL players who were thinking of coming out to “forget about it”.

There has, however, been some hope in the likes of Jason Ball, the 24-year-old footballer at the Yarra Glen Football Club in the Yarra Valley Mountain District Football League who came out, first to his teammates and then the media.

According to Cunningham, “Homosexuality in sports… differs from sport to sport.

“The culture of diving was an open enough environment for Mat­thew Mitcham to come out, but it would be very different for an AFL or NRL player who wanted to do the same.”

Originally written as a screenplay with sixteen characters and the intention of making it into a short film, Cunningham instead chose to turn it into a stage play and had to eliminate a lot of elements to the story.

“For the stage version I really wanted a private fly-on-the-wall locker room experience, so I got rid of anyone who wasn’t a footy player, like the coach and the players’ managers,” says Cunningham.

The cast was narrowed down to four people, but unluckily an un­committed actor left Cunningham to remove a character altogether until the cast was made up of “a protagonist, an antagonist and a narrator.”

The use of a narrator is somewhat perplexing and jarring, as it inter­rupts the action and gives information that is unnecessary for understand­ing the play.

The masculinity and testosterone-fuelled environment of the locker room is conveyed through unrestrained bouts of swearing and unashamed nudity. Loud and vulgar and, literally, in your face (an audience member in the front row shielded her face when one of the nude actors had a faux-shower right in front of her) the performance is a stark contrast with the sensitive nature of the issue it addresses.

Unfortunately a cliché twist at the play’s conclusion seems to counteract Cunningham’s intention of portraying the reactions of straight males to news of their teammates homosexuality.

What promises to be a “controversial examination of mateship and masculinity”, the ambitious and experimental The Sheds falls short of any such expectations and fails to leave any lasting impression on the audience.

Kemal Atlay

The author Kemal Atlay

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