Return To The Dirt – Steve Pirie Draws On Lived Experiences For Theatre

'Return To The Dirt'
Anna Rose loves hard rock and heavy metal, but particularly enjoys writing about and advocates for Aboriginal artists. She enjoys an ice-cold Diet Coke and is allergic to the word 'fabulous’.

We fear death. We fear the unknown. Despite the differences in our lives, we have the inevitability of death in common. Is life, then, inherently the same?

These, and other questions, are worked through in 'Return To The Dirt' at Queensland Theatre, a play which sees a young man, Steve, taking the only job he could get, in a funeral home, spending years working among the dead only to have his eyes opened to what it means to live.

“It’s one of the most invisible things that happens around us,” the play’s mastermind, Steve Pirie, says. “What death care as an industry has excelled at is what was asked of it – to make it [death] go away.

“Now it’s become this very quiet, very clinical process, for what is actually a very human event.”

Body bags, restraints. . . A menagerie to the macabre lines the rehearsal space from which Steve speaks to us from. Despite the often spiritually-perceived nature of the show’s themes, these visual adds are all necessary for the telling of the 'Return To The Dirt' story, which Steve says is part biographical – having penned the play from his own experiences as a funeral director – part fiction. “John Green talks about this really well in ‘The Fault In Our Stars’,” Steve begins. “Does an audience really benefit from the separating of fiction from truth?”

“It’s ['Return To The Dirt'] based on a lived experience – but what actually happens, because I want to look after the people that inspired the story, some circumstances have been changed. The only two characters in the story that are based on truth are myself and my partner at the time.”

Despite being a hard thing to manage, in giving a retelling of his experiences through this medium, Steve has taken several measures with the script and performers to abate any sense of discomfort or anxiety in the audience. “Everyone’s going to be bringing something into the room from outside, and that’s not something I can control.”

“What I can do, is tell a story with empathy and with warmth. That’s the reason why I put myself into the play in the job that I did – as a funeral director.

“A good funeral director is present but never the centre. I lived in this world as a 25-year-old f...-up with no job, no money, and came out with a very different perspective on the world at a time when I needed it.”

As his experiences guided him, Steve sees 'Return To The Dirt' guiding the audience. “I think it’s giving them more information,” he says. “The biggest question that was asked of me when I met the families was ‘What happens now?’ It wasn’t an existential question, it’s a logistical question; what happened to the body? What are you going to do here?”

“The beautiful contrast that the show takes people through is the mundanity of what actually happens. There are things to organise, canapés to order, paperwork to be done, but all of this is happening behind this transformative time, when a lot of people go through trauma.

“It’s a way to take audiences through a layer of separation from their own experiences by living those experiences through a 25-year-old who has to learn very quickly how to do all these things.”

'Return To The Dirt' plays Queensland Theatre's Bille Brown Theatre 16 October-6 November and then is available for fans across Australia as part of Queensland Theatre At Home 29 November-5 December.

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