Melanie wanted men's and women's prizes to be equal but then her hometown turned on her

Valerie Bader as Bev Armstrong and Merridy Eastman as Barb Ling, in Melanie Tait's The Appleton Ladies Potato Race.
Valerie Bader as Bev Armstrong and Merridy Eastman as Barb Ling, in Melanie Tait's The Appleton Ladies Potato Race.

Melanie Tait used to have a romantic notion of one day moving back to her hometown, and settling down for a bit.

She would write books, get back into small-town life, and help out her folks at the local supermarket they own.

But, on one of her many visits back to the NSW town of Robertson, where she grew up, she learned a stunningly ridiculous new fact: the town's traditional potato race, a yearly highlight, gave out $1000 prize money to men, and just $200 to women.

She - naively, it turned out - decided to raise the money to make up the difference, so that the women, too, could score $1000 if they won the race.

She thought she would be hailed as a feminist hero by the town. Her family were entrenched in the community; her parents ran the pub growing up, and, more recently, her father took out another mortgage to buy the town's famous Big Potato, which was at risk of being bulldozed to make way for a second supermarket.

It was her hometown, a place she had always belonged. Instead, to her horror, the town turned on her.

"It was really such a dark night of the soul, I can't even tell you," Tait says over the phone.

She's speaking ahead of the Canberra opening of her hit play, The Appleton Ladies' Potato Race, inspired by her Robertson experience.

Playwright and journalist Melanie Tait. Picture: Supplied

Playwright and journalist Melanie Tait. Picture: Supplied

It was, she says, the worst experience of her life, one that forced her to reassess her identity as a local, and to try and put herself in the shoes of someone who would think such inequality could ever be acceptable.

But her play, far from being a Molotov cocktail of malice and revenge, is a love letter to small town life, to families, friends, relationships, and letting the outside in. But in the interim, Tait found herself at the centre of a catastrophe.

"My hometown kind of melted down around that and it was actually a really, really painful, painful experience... it was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life."

At first, Tait was completely shocked and confused at many in the town's response. Although not everyone was against her - she banded together with a group of old friends, and their fundraising campaign drew responses and donations from all over the world thanks to a story in the Guardian - it was seeing people she had known her whole life blanking her in the street that threw her.

"I was never the outsider, ever, in that town," she says. "It was always my home, I was always included, I always knew everybody, and the day [of the race], I had people I've known my whole life turn their backs, and not talk to me, and it was devastating."

It's a funny thing about small towns. There's so much going on under the surface, that outsiders can never guess at. And those that are remotely picturesque will inevitably undergo a period of gentrification, which piles layers upon layers.

"They're such complicated places," Tait says.

"What I always find so funny, whenever I watch the ABC show Backroads, which I love, I think Christ almighty, that is half the story of that town you see there."

We often hear about such towns in extremis - overcoming a natural disaster, or dealing with trauma, but there's so much more to unpick on any given day.

"We moved there when I was four. I'm 40 now, and over those 35-plus years that place has started to gentrify," she says.

"The tension that that caused, not only when I was growing up but as I've grown up and become one of these people that are gentrified - I'm in the sort of in-between land and I've always found that tension really interesting and I always wanted to write about it.

"I could never find the right story vehicle, and then this happened and I [realised] this is the story that I needed to write."

So, apart from simply old-school sexism, why did she think the prizes were so unequal, even accounting for the fact that men carried 50kg potato sacks, while women carried just 20kg?

It was the writing process that allowed her to really unpick what was going on. A writer and broadcaster, Tait began her career as a playwright relatively early, writing a hit play, The Vegemite Tales, when she was in her early 20s, before bowing out of what was then a male-dominated theatre world and moving into journalism. She's been a broadcaster on the ABC for years, as well as writing a book and making podcasts. But theatre had always been calling her back; something about the economy of playwriting, of nailing the dialogue and getting down to the basics, still appealed to her.

"That's a beautiful thing I think about creating a work of art, that you spend so much time processing through feelings and things that have gone on and being able to really look back at the past," she says of writing this play.

"I really spent a lot of time looking at the people, trying to get inside the skin of the people who didn't agree with it. I just couldn't understand that, I couldn't understand why. We weren't taking anything away from the men's race."

She realised, eventually, that places like Robertson were ultimately run by women. Her play - she changed the name of the town to Appleton because it sounded better with potatoes - has a cast of just five women, and the men - most of them called Billy - are only ever mentioned, never seen.

"I don't know if this is the case, but what I sort of got to is that in these towns, small country towns where jobs are few, where there's a real rural working class, masculinity is very, very fragile," she says.

"And so, if somebody wants to come and take some of that away, which is what the perception is when you try and make something equal, being honest, the battle was between the educated people in the town versus the not-as-educated people in the town.

"It's also like [the men] are victims of the patriarchy as well, of this notion that they are meant to be the providers, that they're meant to be all that kind of stuff, so it is a super-complicated thing."

Much like the play, the real-life story has a happy ending. The race now gives equal prizes, Tait's parents - once mortified - are proud of her, and there's talks of a movie in the works. Robertson has already had a starring role in Hollywood - it was the setting for Babe - and Tait says the play's success has made everything worth the pain.

"I wouldn't change a thing about what happened," she says. "Every tiny little thing matters, you know... this is what I love about this show. It's this tiny comedy about five women and a potato race, but it's actually about something huge."

This story Melanie wanted men's and women's prizes to be equal. Her hometown turned on her first appeared on The Canberra Times.