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Gone Viral goes to the heart of teen grief

Theatre

When Adelaide playwright Sally Hardy began writing the play that became Gone Viral, she intended for it to be a comedy exploring teenage friendships. But then her dad was diagnosed with cancer.

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The original production was created in 2013 for a group of Year 12 drama students at Our Lady of Sacred Heart College, one of whom was also dealing with the fact that her father had terminal cancer.

“When I went to write a comedy, all I could think of was that my dad was really sick and might not make it – and I’m really close to my dad,” Hardy says.

“I thought that I wanted to write about it because it was all I was thinking about it, but I also thought if I was feeling like this in my 30s, imagine how this girl was feeling?”

Gone Viral – which won the Trinity College London International Playwriting Award for Teenage Audiences in 2014, was produced in London the same year, and will be performed at Tandanya later this month as part of the DreamBIG children’s festival – ended up being a play about grief and loss.

It also explores other themes that are highly relevant to young people – such as binge drinking, friendship, social media, online safety and sexual consent – but is also suitable for an adult audience.

The central character is 17-year-old Cassie, whom Hardy describes as a “fairly typical teen” dealing with peer pressure and the stress associated with being in Year 12. On top of that, her father is dying of cancer and his sickness over the previous four years has taken a big toll on the family.

“Cassie’s always thought that things would go back to normal, but she lets us know right at the beginning of the play that that’s not going to happen,” Hardy says.

“She’s just found out he’s coming home and he’s coming home because he’s not going to get better.

“She has to say goodbye to him before he goes but like most of us when we’re teenagers, she hasn’t been keeping him or her mum in the loop about what she’s been up to all the time.

“She’s gone off the rails a little bit … she doesn’t know how to say goodbye when she feels like he doesn’t know who she is any more. She feels like to be honest and say goodbye to him she will have to reveal who she really is, and she doesn’t feel proud of who she is because she’s done a few silly things.”

A key subplot, indicated by the title, involves a photo of Cassie in a compromising position with a boy that is being shared around on Facebook. Because she was drunk at the time the picture was taken, she can’t remember what actually happened.

We’re hoping it will move people and affect them and they will have conversations about these issues

Hardy – whose other works include A Kid Like Me (a collaboration with theatre-maker Alirio Zavarce) and Unravelled (presented by Ink Pot Youth Ensemble during this year’s Adelaide Fringe) – stresses that Gone Viral is not a didactic piece of theatre. Rather than giving audience members the exact tools needed to deal with the issues presented, it aims to provoke a response, discussion and empathy.

It’s certainly not a comedy, but there are moments of levity – especially in the interactions between Cassie and her friends, whom she hasn’t told what’s going on at home.

“This is very much a story and we’ve tried to make the characters incredibly real and three-dimensional; they are flawed, like real people are,” Hardy says.

“They’re only young so they don’t necessarily say or do the right things … but we’re just showing them react in a real way and we’re hoping it will move people and affect them and they will have conversations about these issues either with their class, or their friends or their family or their peers.”

Presented by Hardy’s Free Range Theatrix company in partnership with Brink Productions, Gone Viral is directed by Tiffany Lyndall-Knight and features a cast of five SA-trained actors who are all graduates of the Flinders Drama Centre or AC Arts.

The role of Cassie is played by Yvonne McAulay, whose own mother was diagnosed with cancer when she was in Year 12 and passed away when she was in her honours year at Flinders.

In a video accompanying a Pozible fundraising campaign in support of the production, McAulay says the script immediately resonated with her.

“It felt like things that I’d thought, things that I’d said and it felt really real to me … this felt like it was my story.

“I think it’s important for people like me and my sister, who’s still in high school, but also people around us, so they can kind of understand where we’re coming from, what we’ve been through and how to get through it together.”

Gone Viral, suitable for ages 12+, is being presented at Tandanya from May 18-21 as part of the DreamBIG children’s festival, which runs from May 18-27. A representative of cancer organisation CanTeen will be present after each performance to offer help and information to those dealing with cancer in their family, and resources related to some of the play’s themes will also be made available.

 The online fundraising campaign in support of the production ends on Wednesday.

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