There’s an undeniable playfulness in the rehearsal room at the State Theatre Company. It’s an all-female cast for The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race and joining the five women is director Elena Carapetis.

The play, written by Melanie Tait, is an autobiographical story about Tait’s return home to Robertstown, NSW, in 2018. The playwright and journalist discovered the town’s annual potato race awarded a $1000 prize to the winner of the men’s race, while victorious women only walked away with $200.

She started a Go Fund Me page to bring the women’s prize money up to be equal to the men’s and then wrote a play about it.

The State Theatre Company’s version features cast members Sarah Brokensha, Genevieve Mooy, Carmel Johnson, Anna Steen and Susie Youssef.

Anna Steen, who plays Penny, a character based on Tait, says that during rehearsals, the cast has been practising walking around with 20-kilogram sacks of potatoes to get a feel for the weight the competitors are dealing with.

“The idea of putting 20 kilograms of potatoes across your shoulders and running 400 metres around an oval is pretty daunting, so lucky my characters isn’t into potato racing,” Steen says.

Steen’s character Penny is a doctor who has been away from her hometown of Appleton for 20 years and, just like Tait, hears about the inequality of the local potato race.

“She hears this news and goes, ‘Right, we’re going to fix this’ and of course that puts the cat amongst the pigeons in the town, because the town is sort of happy the way things have been going for all these years.

“Penny demands they look into the mirror of their existence, which just wreaks absolute havoc. They learn a lot from Penny but, in turn, she learns a lot from them.”

The potato race is the vehicle for exploring all sorts of things that happen in a small country town, which Steen says is a microcosm of the bigger picture of our country.

“It’s a beautiful play. It’s very entertaining – it is a comedy, but it’s also full of heart and, like all good theatre, it kind of makes you think and be curious and look at your own life and go, ‘What do I believe in and what should I be standing stronger for that maybe I’m not now?’”

Being autobiographical, the actors had a lot to unpack when it came to exploring characters based on real people. Tait has supported them every step of the way, via video from Sydney.

“She’s really helped us out with all of the histories of the characters and where they all germinated from, which is really helpful as an actor to be able to dig deep behind the person you see on stage and work out what’s been happening to this person to get them to this place in their lives now.”

Steen says Elena Carapetis has created a vibrant, nurturing space for the women to rehearse.

“We’re having a lot of fun and the characters are growing slowly and every time one person discovers something new about their character, it has a flow-on effect to everybody else.

“It’s a very warm, fun, loving room to play in – and it really does have a great sense of play. Even though the play deals with some really deep and important issues, it has a really lovely buoyancy to it, so the room is pretty vibrant.”

The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race is playing at Royalty Theatre from June 4 to 19.

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