Andrea Gibbs loves footy. She’s well on her way to becoming a ‘footy nanna’, she says, so much so that she has written a play about it. It’s called Barracking for the Umpire, a phrase coined by her mum, who used to joke that she was the only one at the South West Football League games who was there to cheer on the umpire, her husband (Gibbs’s father). The play draws on Gibbs’s family history with footy, in particular around her dad’s transition from player to umpire, brought on by concerns around repeated head injury.
This is Gibbs’s first full-length play, which seems surprising, given the years she’s been engaging and entertaining audiences across pretty much every medium: stand-up, storytelling (co-founder of Barefaced Stories), radio (presenter on ABC Radio), actor (stage, screen & voiceover) and improv. “I feel like I’m always juggling a whole bunch of different things as an artist in Perth,” she says. As part of this juggling act, Gibbs is frequently the one interviewing others, but here, she took some time to have the mic turned on her to talk about her playwriting debut.
The seed for Barracking was sown at a Blue Room Theatre workshop run by playwright Hellie Turner in about 2017. The aim of the workshop was to write the first two scenes of a play; those two scenes still open the play in its final form five years later. With mentorship and dramaturgy from Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Literary Director Polly Low, as well as some development support from BSSTC’s “Funny Girl” program in 2020, Gibbs fleshed out the story, incorporating elements of her own family dynamics and adding a bit of her hometown Donnybrook’s local colour through character names and country town lingo.
“Probably my only hesitation was like…uh, I don’t know if this is a comedy,” she says. “How do you write a comedy about concussion? That’s where my family comes in. I’m hoping people really relate to that. How you can be incredibly biting to your siblings, but then love them within two minutes. Those kinds of relationships are where the comedy comes from, I think.”
Indeed, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in itself is far from a laughing matter. Gibbs’s father has not been diagnosed, but as a player, she explains, “He transitioned to umpiring because he was getting too many head knocks. I think if he had continued playing, he would probably be suffering from CTE now. He tried to keep playing and would wear a helmet. But, you know, it’s just that horrible thing about football where any other player sees your weakness and they’ll go for it. So they would just target his head more because he was wearing a helmet.
“I found that very fascinating. I’m such a passionate supporter and as I’m getting older, I’m getting more and more in love with football, but there’s a real dark side and a real grot to football as well…eye gouging, kicking in the face, and really horrible things that some players do behind the scenes.”
Gibbs cites The Boys Club by Michael Warner as having a big impact on her when researching for the play. “It goes in behind the scenes of the power players and the politics,” and she says it makes you ask, “do you fit into that boys club and how do you fit into that boys club?” Barracking explores what it means for this particular family to be part of that club, either as a player, supporter, or family member, and “whether what they have sacrificed to be part of the football was worth it, “ she says.
“For Doug [the father], it’s his health. For the son [played by Ian Wilkes], it’s his sexuality, which he’s had to hide to be able to play football in the way he wants to. One of the daughters, she represents me in a way. She’s been on the outside her entire life because it’s such a boys club. She’s become a sports journalist because she never had the opportunity to become a player, so there’s some jealousy of her brother there,” Gibbs says.
Although Barracking’s jumping off point came from her own family’s experiences, it’s not strictly autobiographical. When asked if they had already read the play, Gibbs says, “No. Mum’s a little bit worried, I think, because she doesn’t know what to expect. I think Dad will really enjoy it. I did try to invite Dennis Cometti (one of her dad’s favourite footy commentators) to opening night, but he’s going away on holiday. I think Dad will cry anyway, he cries at a lot of things – he’s very proud of me.”
Gibbs hopes that the show appeals to everyone – not just her proud parents – even footy and non-footy people. “It’s about family and it’s got a lot of heart.”
Here’s a short clip of Gibbs giving a bit of backstory:
Barracking for the Umpire runs at Subiaco Arts Centre from 11 – 23 October. For more information and tickets, visit the BSSTC website here.