For comedian, actor and radio host Andrea Gibbs, it doesn’t get much better than sitting on the sofa watching Aussie Rules with her dad Geoff.
Sport has always been a big part of her life, growing up in the south-west town of Donnybrook, despite never having played it herself.
In her day, the girls were dropped off at the netball court while their brothers, including Andrea’s brother Brendan, kicked Shereen around, sometimes dreaming of being Dons Donnybrook’s best power player or being selected in the WAFL or AFL.
“Dad played for Donnybrook in the late 1960s, early 1970s; it was pretty tough at the time and he tells me stories of them literally having to push cows off the oval to play,” shares Gibbs.
“Donnybrook is also a term for a fight, a chaotic fight in a crowded place. So I think that’s why the powerful dons were considered particularly cruel.
“There were no ambulances or anything at the ground when people were knocked out and he got hit quite badly, to the point where his mum said, ‘If you’re going to keep playing, you need to start wearing a helmet.’ So he did, but then he became more of a target. Eventually his local doctor said he should give it up, but he couldn’t give it up, so he became a judge.”
It soon became a running joke in the Gibbs household that Andrea’s mom, Trish, who followed her husband to all his games and cheered him on, was the only one on the court to ever umpire, which inspired the name of her debut game.
Commissioned by the Black Swan State Theater Company in Washington, D.C. and supported by the Malcolm Robertson Foundation and the City of Perth’s Funny Girl initiative, Barracking for a Judge takes a slightly different plot, where father hero Doug Williams is not pursued by the judge but suffers from the long-term effects of a brain injury sustained on playing days.
“Dad’s a little forgetful, but my mom probably sees it a lot more than I do,” Gibbs explains.
“He’s in his 70s now, but I don’t think those early hits have done him any good.
“I love football very much, but I was always very conflicted when I saw players being knocked off the ground. That’s when you start asking, “How interesting is that?” I guess that ambiguity and gray area is what interests me.”
With family at the center of Barracking for the Umpire, Doug’s children all return home to celebrate their father’s lifetime achievement award for the greatest footballer Donnybrook has ever known, but they soon witness his ill health.
While the 90-minute play doesn’t attempt to answer the question of concussions and whether we should stop playing sports, or any sport where head injuries are so common, it does examine the once revered hard hitting , which is deeply rooted in Australian culture and its undertone of masculinity.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), formerly thought to occur mainly in boxers, is a progressive degenerative disease that affects the brains of those who have suffered repeated concussions and traumatic brain injuries, resulting in tremors, lack of motor coordination, decreased ability to metal , memory problems and prone to explosive behavior.
It was enough to lead to the early retirement of Eagles players Brad Sheppard and Daniel Venables, who, after too many concussions, both concluded that the risk of continuing to play the sport was greater than any reward.
As part of her research, Gibbs spoke to several AFL and AFLW players, including Venables, describing his story as heartbreaking, mainly to understand the symptoms Doug would be experiencing.
“The challenge was that he’s a very likable character and I needed that feeling around him, but also one of the symptoms of CTE is aggression,” she says.
“So it was about trying to make someone likable while also having an aggressive moment while still making it a comedy. My family has also been a source of inspiration to be light hearted. The banter that goes on there pretty much mirrors what goes on in my family; teased together with hugs.”
Originally scheduled to open in March but delayed by the pandemic, Barracking for the Umpire is returning to Subia with a season at the Subiaco Arts Center from October 7.
The delay required the recasting of several characters, including film, television and stage actors Steve Le Marquand, who plays Doug, and his wife Pippa Grandison, who also plays Doug’s wife Delvin, when they each make their Black Swan debuts.
Both originally from Perth, the couple moved back to Washington with their 13-year-old son Charlie in February, having sold their NSW Central Coast home for a hefty profit thanks to a booming property market and settling into semi-retirement to live the good life on 3ha in Clifton Lakes.
“It means we can just make the work we want, like this play,” says Le Marquand.
“Funnily enough, I think we’re at a certain age now, and this is the third time in two years that we’ve played husband and wife. We didn’t have it before. Luckily, they’re a very loving couple so we don’t have to fight or argue, which can be semi-traumatic and lead to silent trips home.’
Le Marcon, a recognized rugby executive, knows what it’s like to carry sports injuries, he still suffers from snapping his knee in half playing rugby when he was younger.
“No traumatic brain injury, but you read so much about it and it seems like it’s such a common thing in both codes,” he says.
“It’s really hard when your body starts to fail you, when you know what you were once capable of and you can’t do it anymore.
“Doug is having a hard time because his brain is failing him. His family is watching him slowly fade away, he knows what’s going on, but he can’t do anything about it.”
While Le Marcon loves good sportsmanship, and Barracking for a Judge certainly qualifies, he’s also a fan of Gibbs, who tells a rather dark story with humor.
“It’s done very cleverly, so whether you’re an AFL fan or not, I think you’ll still be totally blown away by the play and what it has to say,” he declares.
Gibbs adds that she hopes the audience will think about the education that needs to happen around traumatic brain injuries in sports, still not sure if enough is being done for players to fully understand what they’re getting themselves into.
“I think when you play at the elite level, you feel untouchable and it’s never going to be you, but it could easily be you and it’s the rest of your life,” she says.
“It affects not only the player but all the family members, especially this family because they all believe in the idea of football as a hero and their father is one of the biggest heroes. When they’re forced to question whether it’s really true, or whether we just had a story in our heads and the reality is completely different, it causes a lot of heartache.”
Judge’s Barracks at Subiaco Arts Center from 7 to 23 October.