Actor, playwright, and producer Katherine Sortini recalls the buzz of working at a restaurant.

“There’s something really attractive when you’re in the flow during a service, at the bar, or on the pass. Everywhere where you look, there’s something happening. You feel amazing. It’s a weird current ­– or energy. It’s a bit addictive.”

This electricity pulses at the heart of Adelaide independent theatre company Deus Ex Femina’s latest production, Dirty Energy, directed by Annabel Matheson and written by company founder Sortini.

The story follows hospitality workers Bast (Sortini), Avi (Michelle Lieu), Clay (Connor Pullinger), and Chef (Philippos Ziakas) across two fast-paced services at a contemporary restaurant. They’re working under the keen eye of a prospective buyer, who is wanting to turn the business into the state’s first Michelin-star venue.

Theatre-maker and Deus Ex Femina founder Katherine Sortini. Photo: Weronika Mamot

Dirty Energy poses questions of power, class and race in a setting familiar to many, but one in which these dynamics are often overlooked.

Sortini describes her script as “a love letter” of sorts to an industry with which she has a “love-hate relationship”.

“I had a full-time career in hospitality while simultaneously being a full-time artist, which was crazy. A lot of people work hospo, especially in the arts… It’s a crazy little industry.”

Sortini began working on the script in 2019 and developed it as a 2022 Carclew Fellow under the mentorship of playwright Emily Steel (The Garden, Euphoria and 19 Weeks).

“This will be my first linear play. I wrote All the Things I Couldn’t Say [her 2022 Adelaide Fringe play] as a vignette-style show. Emily helped me crack open a longer narrative style, because there’s a different formula.

“At first, I was asking her, ‘I have two scenes to start, but how do I get to the middle, how do I get to the end, and how do I make sure it’s all interesting?’… At the end of the fellowship I had all of these tools to carry it forward.”

Sortini continued workshopping the script with collaborator Matheson. Together, they feel ready to give Dirty Energy its first run at this year’s Adelaide Fringe, having received support through a Fringe artist grant.

Following the success of shows like Golden Globe-Award-winning television series The Bear, Dirty Energy arrives at a time when audiences have an appetite for gritty portrayals of the hospitality industry.

“This is one for the hospo workers, for us to look at ourselves in action and say, ‘Oh yeah, that was hard’, or ‘Wow, that’s me’,” Sortini says. “Making art gives me the opportunity to offer that experience, that mirroring of reality, to audiences.”

Unlike previous Deus Ex Femina productions which have utilised multimedia staging technologies, the focus of Dirty Energy will be on the story and the characters.

“This show will be more of a classic theatre piece: it’s about four characters and is set around a pass and a table,” Sortini says.

She hopes Dirty Energy will have a long life beyond this current season, explaining that the purpose of this production is to “get it up and see how people relate to it”.

“I believe that art needs multiple developments for it to come to a place that you, as the artist, are happy with. We live in a world where we’re expected to produce, produce, produce and, in my experience, a work takes time. The art that has impacted me the most has always had time to grow; it has time in its development.”

Sortini, Matheson, and the cast bring Dirty Energy to the stage with a mind for the future and a commitment to the current season.

“We are so passionate about this play. I really want this to be impactful for audiences. It’ll almost be ritualistic.” Just like a hot, sweaty dinner service can be.

Dirty Energy will be presented in the Ballroom at the House and Grounds at Carclew from March 7 until March 10. Katherine Sortini will also be a participant in Adelaide Writers’ Week’s Hear Me Roar session featuring slam poets and spoken-word artists on March 3.

This story is part of a series of articles being produced by InReview with the support of Adelaide Fringe.

Read more 2024 Adelaide Fringe stories and reviews here.

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