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Em Chandler (She/They) is one of four playwrights shortlisted for the Queer Playwriting Award 2023 for their play ‘Numa and Karl: Extraordinary Man that He Was'

"I want audiences to be able to experience a historical queer story where the struggle is not coming out, but how the world responds. And that against impossible odds, the most extraordinary courage can emerge."

We were lucky enough to chat with emerging playwright and QPAS nominee, Em Chandler to talk about her play 'Numa and Karl: Extraordinary Man that He Was' a biographical play about 19th-century queer activist and theorist of sexuality, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. QPAS (Queer Playwriting Award Showcase) is a part of the Midsumma Presents program and a collaboration between Gasworks Arts Park and Midsumma Festival.

Em Chandler, in her own words, is a queer/trans-theatre-maker whose arts practice involves writing, puppetry, magic, and oral storytelling. She lives in Ballarat on unceded Wathaurong land where she moved in 2017 to study Music Theatre (Federation University Arts Academy) but loved it so much that she ended up staying there permanently. She's a Quaker and fills her spare time as a hobby, researching folk and fairy tales. "I love apricot jam on vanilla ice-cream and I’m about 90% tea."

What drew you to apply for QPAS?

"I have been keenly searching for the right avenue to continue developing and sharing Numa and Karl. A dear friend and mentor told me when applications opened and instantly I knew it was the right fit. Midsumma is the most brilliant celebration of all things queer, and QLAS is a fantastic vehicle to give a glimpse into the wide variety of new queer theatre in Australia."

Tell us about your play

'Numa and Karl: Extraordinary Man that He Was' is a biographical play about Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Karl was 19th century queer activist and theorist of sexuality, writing some of the first widely popular theories on sexuality; initially under the pseudonym Numa Numantius. In 1867 he protested at a gathering of 500 German jurists against the criminalisation of (what we now call) homosexuality. The play explores this incredible human and his passion, his relationship with his family and loved ones, and the impact his work had on community then and today."

What’s the message/s you want to get across with this piece?

"Queerness has a long -- often unrecorded -- history, it didn’t just start at Stonewall. Through this play I want people to not only discover how contemporary and impactful Karl was, but to be inspired to learn more about how hidden history. I also want audiences to be able to experience a historical queer story where the struggle is not coming out, but how the world responds. And that against impossible odds, the most extraordinary courage can emerge."

Who or what inspires your playwriting?

"What inspires a lot of my work are people wanting to be seen for themselves. Whether it's my own lived experience as queer/trans person, or real figures from history, or completely imaginary people in folktales, I am endlessly inspired and energised by these stories' honesty and truth. Who inspires my playwriting? Some of the incurably long list of theatre-makers include Caryl Churchill, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Anthony Crowley, and Dirk Maggs."

What are your top 3 favourite stage works you’ve seen?

"Antipodes Theatre Company of 'And She Would Stand Like This' was extraordinary. The combination of ball culture, the AIDS crisis, and Greek tragedy was powerful, deep and so visceral. I’m sorry I only got to see it once; but I am oh so glad that I got to witness it. Just stunning!

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen 'Come From Away' six times. Almost embarrassing. Almost. Filled with hope and the power of community, I cry every time. A brilliant, uplifting ensemble work.

Does seeing Mandy Patinkin sing live count? I’m going to say it does. The performance – just him and an incredible accompanist – was a sombre and heartfelt affair. It was a cathartic experience and I left Hamer Hall looking at the world differently than before."

If you win QPAS, what’s the first thing you’d do to celebrate?

In all honesty, have a cup of tea! Humans are roughly 60% water, but I’m pretty sure I’m 90% tea. After that (or even while the kettle is still boiling) I’ll call my friends and family, tell them the good news, probably while doing a dance in the kitchen.

What are your plans beyond the competition?

Not only do I want a full production of Numa and Karl, I am working towards a special event for Karl’s bicentennial in August 2025. Along with working towards that, I’ll continue my rich and electric arts practice writing and devise work that ranges from historical plays to theatre filled with puppetry and magic, performing for kids, telling folktales, and continuing my PhD!

Be the first to hear a snippet of 'Numa and Karl: Extraordinary Man that He Was' and other plays at the Queer Playwrighting Award Showcase, 23 January 2023.

The Queer Playwriting Award Showcase is part of the Midsumma Presents program, a collaboration between Gasworks Arts Park and Midsumma Festival. QPAS identifies, supports and develops original Australian theatre with a queer focus.

Posted 21 Dec 2022 | Article by Izzie Brownbill


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