Drama teacher Zoe Thurner tells Amelia Vahtrick about her debut novel Dress Rehearsal (Fremantle Press).
The story is framed by a Year 12 theatre production, which provides a lot of the drama between Lara and the other students. What effect do you think theatre can have on teenagers?
Theatre is visceral, immediate and invites people to connect. In a world dominated by virtual relationships I think theatre can bring young people together in a meaningful way. As a drama teacher I have scripted, directed and assisted in the production of youth theatre, which is often highly innovative and can bring out new qualities in students. Last year I wrote a script in the form of a cabaret set in Berlin of the 1930s. We cast a rather isolated boy as the MC, where he shone, and had a burly footballer happily dancing the waltz. These kids were united in a group task that required them to negotiate, give freely and be part of something larger than themselves. And the youth audience loved it. Ultimately, whether they choose to watch theatre or produce it I think theatre has a very uplifting effect on teenagers. That’s one of the things I tried to get across when I was writing Dress Rehearsal.
There’s a pretty scary scene in the book where Lara and two other girls get into a car with some drunken boys. Did you write this as a warning for teenage readers, or were you merely interested in depicting something that does happen?
Like parents and teachers everywhere, I feel acutely aware of the dangers young people face in making quick, poor decisions. I have discovered this from my students, my kids and my own early mistakes. This scene was based on an experience I had as a girl, when I hitched a ride with some boys up the coast and had to escape by jumping out of a moving car. Very scary. But the scene also stands there for boys. Some years ago I worked on a drama project with the Head Injured Society and sadly met young men in wheelchairs as a result of drink-driving accidents. I think learning from life is important but our kids have to choose their lessons carefully.
Lara is a fabulous, larger-than-life character, whether she’s fighting with her mum, flirting with one boy after another, or taking to her bed in dramatic fashion when things go wrong. Did you have fun writing her? More fun than you would have had writing a more perfect heroine?
Writing Lara Pearlman was like writing a very long dramatic monologue. It propelled me into the chaotic world of Lara’s thoughts and desires, which was wild and pretty intense. It is true that Lara is not a classic heroine. She does not save her friends and cannot change the bad things that happen to them. But I think that Lara and some of the other characters in Dress Rehearsal slowly come to terms with life as it stands in all its imperfection and I think that process takes some honesty and a special kind of courage. So while Lara is chasing around after other people she learns a lot about what she really values and she finds that the best life she can live is her own.
I love the way people can be highly contradictory and also capable of great adaptation and change and so first impressions are really just a starting point. I am interested in how a person’s story evolves and how all the contradictory elements are revealed and held together. In Dress Rehearsal Lara is not analytic. She can’t stand back and work people out, the way Nathan might. Instead she throws herself into tough situations to discover the truth. She is often shocked as she pieces conflicting bits together but finally arrives at a richer understanding of the people around her. I volunteer as a telephone counsellor and have to stay open to the subtle and shifting clues given in the course of the conversation which often ends in a very different impression of the caller.
Dress Rehearsal is published by Fremantle Press. This interview first appeared in the March issue of Junior Bookseller+Publisher magazine. Sign up to the free monthly Junior Bookseller+Publisher Newsletter here.