top of page
Johnny7 -  Rhys & chorus.jpg



Beyond the edge of science lies magic. Imagine if we could see it? If we could stand in that place, flickering like astral lights, with knowledge behind us and, in front, promise rising and falling in a swell. That’s the moment I search for in a play- where all life is swirling around a person, with all the consequences and results of their actions, and all the revelations that have come to life laying naked the inner ambitions which have manipulated their public self and tried to fulfil their wishes. Where the noise of their outlandish behaviour, their bad jokes and distractions has fallen away with the laughter of the audience that has been drawn along and where, instead, is revealed the frightened baby we spend our lives hiding, sitting there in the spotlight in a moment of reckoning.

That’s where my plays start, with that vision, seeing that moment which the past and the future circle, with the events that have led to it swimming in the surrounding coils of life. I follow them and I want you to follow them with me, to understand what has led us here with humour and song, failed love and secrets.

Mill Boys. Scene 1. Collingwood Underground Theatre. 2011.

Mill Boys. Scene 1. Collingwood Underground Theatre. 2011.

Mill Boys has been adapted from the Australian novel Eleven Months in Bunbury by James Ricks, a runner-up for the Vogel literary award in 1996. The novel tells the story of a group of sawmill workers in the industrial Western Australian town of Bunbury, working-class men confronted with unemployment as the mill closes down. ''We're trying to develop a piece of original Australian theatre that's bold and funny and honest,'' O’Connor says. MARK Rayner is no ordinary theatre usher. The 49-year-old ''couch-surfer'' is homeless and engaged in a drawn-out wrangle with the Office of Housing to secure a permanent place to live. He's also a former heroin addict and alcoholic in the second stage of a debilitating, months-long course of medication to cure himself of hepatitis C. Currently hitting the scales at a bird-like 62 kilograms, he says he weighed almost twice that much less than a year ago. ''I was a big boy and this is what's left of me,'' he says. But Rayner is no victim. He is one of the most energetic and engaged people you could hope to meet on Collingwood's public housing estate on Hoddle Street. The estate's vast and cavernous underground car park is the venue at which Rayner will make his ushering debut this weekend, when the new Australian play Mill Boys premieres there. Mill Boys is no ordinary theatre production. The brainchild of Melbourne playwright Joel O’Connor, from inception the project's aim has been to recruit several of the estate's residents in production roles ranging from ushering and set construction to sound and lighting. ''We're giving people the scope to be involved, enjoy themselves and learn some skills and be part of something,'' O’Connor says. To that end, the Collingwood Housing Estate Action Committee has been active in sounding out people, particularly young people to get them interested. O’Connor admits it has been a challenge getting people to commit in advance, but says he's confident that once opening night is in sight people will get on board. ''An environment like this, it's not necessarily William Street where people have timetables and you're scheduled to meet this person at this time, but it's really eclectic and who's here at the time is who you engage with,'' he says. He would know. He's led similarly community-focused artistic projects among disadvantaged communities before, recently in Manchester and with the Aboriginal Housing Company in Redfern. Also involved is the newly formed Collingwood Men's Shed organisation, which is based on the estate. It's no ordinary men's shed. Rayner is the president. ''It's not like you go to Frankston Men's Shed and it's all retirees, 65, tinkering away on the boat,'' he says. ''We deal with drugs, alcohol, depression, health problems. We've got people that come in with attitudes and what-not.'' The secretary, Nick Arnott, a resident of the estate, says getting people involved in the community can be challenging, but the effect can also be profound. ''What you've got to understand is that for a lot of our members it's really the first time they're actually stepping out and signing up to get involved and be part of something,'' Arnott says. The estate's gloomy underground car park is an apt setting for such gritty subject matter. Crime-riddled and impossible to police, it was closed down many years ago, but has been reborn as an arts space run by the Collingwood Housing Estate Action Committee. The committee manages the space for residents to participate in and create their own artistic projects. The play's director, Yma Zammit-Ross, has experienced first-hand the ''amazing'' effect theatre can have on people through her work with children in custody at the Juvenile Justice Centre in Parkville. ''Theatre was very much a way to engage these young people to tell their stories and a way for them to express themselves and what they'd been through and it was a very powerful medium to do that,'' Zammit-Ross says. The actors in Mill Boys are professionals, but the show's producers hope something similarly powerful will be happening just off-stage. Mill Boys runs from Saturday, August 27 to September 10 at the Collingwood Underground Theatre, 44 Harmsworth Street, Collingwood. Tickets, $20, are available through or at the door.