An insight into process with the director and the solo performer.
“Mum’s promised him a bike, so he keeps his shirt clean, his head down, and steers clear of the smoking boys and the what-what girls. Because good things come to good people. Don't they?”
Good Dog from Playwright Arinzé Kene is coming our way soon. It’s an Australian premiere and has a terrific team behind it. I had the opportunity to visit the rehearsal rooms for a sit-down chat with the Director, Rachel Chant and solo performer, Justin Amankwah to talk about the story of a boy who speaks of his world, Hackney, a world heading into the 2011 London riots. An insight into the actor prepares and the director guides which is fascinating to hear about.
Judith: How old is the boy at the beginning?
Justin: He’s 13.
Judith: And the show runs over 10 years?
Justin: More like 9 years, I suppose.
Judith: How are you going to make those changes? Have you been working on a particular physicality or voice?
Justin: Oh, yeah, we're working on the voice. I think the physicality comes when you do the voice and embody the words and his intentions and what he's feeling and going through. That's, I think, falling together pretty naturally.
Judith: Rachel, there's a lot of different places in the play isn’t there?
Rachel: Well, all the different places exist really beautifully inside Justin's head. So, it's amazing how much, because we haven't been working with the set yet in the space, we’ve just been working with the language and it's amazing how much all of these different spaces are coming to life already … just through seeing them through the boy's eyes. Our set designers have whipped up something for us, that Justin hasn't seen yet, because we're trying to build the picture of it in our own heads before we see the set. So, we're holding off on that a little bit so we can then just pop it in!
Judith: It’s a big production team so lighting and sound is going to be important too?
Rachel: Yeah, we've got a team of 14 to do a one-person show which is crazy and excellent. I guess the thing about it being a one-person show is that it feels, we've talked a lot about this, it can feel like you're the only person out there. Because you are … but then, you know, the lighting is also another character and the sound is also another character. In a sense these are other characters to interact with, is how we have been talking about that.
Judith: Justin, you have to embody a lot of different characters through the show, how do you keep them straight in your head?
Justin: I get a lot of help from our voice coach. (Linda Nicholls-Gidley) So we work with accents and we're giving them all different backgrounds and flavours and personalities. Yeah, it all helps to create their oral postures.
Judith: I was going to ask you about the accent actually. He has a Nigerian or Hackney accent?
Justin: We are going with a South London accent for him. It’s not specified in the play how long he has been there, so we are going through me to get to the Boy; going with him being Ghanaian and our given circumstances is that he was born in the country. So yeah, his parents are foreigners, but he's first generation.
Judith: I saw a quote from the writer that he weaves a lot of his own life into it. I suppose as an actor you do that as well?
Justin: Absolutely. I think the Boy is super relatable, and all the other characters as well, that's what I'm really excited for people to see. Yeah, he says a lot of things and I'm like … I've had the exact same thought before.
Judith: Is the play linear?
Rachel: Linear and yet reflective. It jumps back and digresses but it's linear in how we're always with him moving forward, but he might tell a story about what happens back there.
Judith: Well, let me ask you about learning the text? How does that go? Is that something you've got a natural gift for?
Justin: Nooo. (laughter). It's just practice and work and time. Yeah and just drilling it going over and over but I have a little thing I do where I record my voice and listen to it on my travels and my commute. And then, by the time I go to learn it, it's already at the back of my mind.
Judith: It’s an Australian premiere. Why haven’t we seen it before?
Rachel: That's our question too? It feels really timely … with the state of the world at the moment where protests are happening. Protest is a very real thing that's happening … in Hong Kong and with the Extinction Rebellion. Everywhere people are speaking up and speaking out and fighting for! That's just one part of this play, but a part which feels super timely to now.
Judith: Yet he has a naivety to him and an innocence, is part of the attraction of the play?
Justin: Absolutely. Yeah because he starts off so young … and when you're growing up you believe everything adults tell you because you believe that adults know everything and it's not till you become an adult yourself and you know that you don't know anything. So, it comes from him just, kind of, trusting that the people who have been here before him know what they're talking about when they tell him how to be good. Yep; and then he learns some stuff.
Judith: As a director do you need to pull back the charm a bit? Justin is very charming!
Rachel: (both laughing) The charm is very helpful, let me put it that way! Although we did have a moment yesterday where we had to be like … ahha, that is a bit too charming there. Let’s bring it down a little bit. Because some of the themes of the play are quite dark, the charm is so important and which is why Justin is the dream in this role.
Judith: Does he get angry?
Justin: He feels things, he definitely feels a spectrum of emotions yes.
Judith: And what's the symbolism of keeping his shirt clean?
Rachel: There’s something about copping it! Like … dirt being thrown on this shirt, no, I will take this. I won't let this dirt weigh me down, I guess I'll clean my shirt again. We talk a lot about holding the hit. That you don't let the ball bounce off it and hit someone else …that you hold it and cop it. But at what point does holding the hit become impossible?
Judith: When the rewards for it stop happening? Are there many rewards for him for this good behaviour; this good dog that he is?
Justin: That's where the story gets gooood. I think that’s all we want to say about that!
Judith: No spoilers. The Guardian said the play was a tapestry.
Rachel: Because it’s set in the community, it’s not just the Boy’s story but all of his neighbours’ stories and all of those are constantly woven the whole way through. And so, even though it's very much his story, it's also just as much the story of the little dog down the road. I think all of those threads definitely weave together to make it up.
Judith: And how much Cricket do you need to know?
Rachel: Well … Justin was looking up how to play cricket on YouTube just the other day.
Justin: I was working out how to bat because I didn’t know. I think it's only going to turn up once fully but we haven't quite fleshed out the blocking it so it's hard to say … but at the moment it's just a little bit.
Judith: It’s always a useful physical skill to have. What have you found the most emotionally challenging to access?
Justin: At first, being who I am and knowing what I know and not being 13! He does this thing where he's … like if this is this and this is that how is that this? And Rachel wants it done in this really kind of … he's just trying to figure it out. And for me, because I know where it's going, I’m acting it frustrated and he's mad. But he hasn't got to that point yet. So, I guess, keeping the naivety.
Judith: Your process, Rachel? It sounds like you're not a director to have it all blocked beforehand, rather, working instinctively on the floor.
Rachel: Yeah, I think I tend to work more collaboratively, I guess. I definitely don't have all the answers and I know that if I tried to put all the answers in, it wouldn't be the best version of it. So, Justin and I work a lot together and then we'll bounce off … you know the set designer might throw something in and the vocal coach might throw something in.
So we work more as a team and, you know, because this way we get so many more discoveries in the room. Justin and I've been working really well together … we’ll be talking and then all the sudden both have this huge idea and it feels really right.
Judith: What will the audiences take away do you think?
Justin: My hope is that, because I feel like the world is at a point right now when we're realizing a lot of things are just a construct, I hope people are going to see that being good is also a construct. And I hope people are going to value feeling good just as much as they value being good.
Judith: Rachel, it's a really positive feeling we will take out of the theatre with us?
Rachel: Totally. I think I think the play is about how hard it is to be good. It looks at being good as a way of finding happiness and then it looks at not being good as a way of finding happiness. But the answer is not in being good or in being not good, the answer is in activating change. It ends on a hopeful note. There's this sense of empowerment and hope and it feels like we don't have the answers but it feels like we're prepared to go out there and try … which I think is, you know, the most exciting thing about it. Because, of course, we don't have the answers, but we know that it's important to just keep on going and to keep trying to find a way of going through the world.
Rehearsal Photos Credit: Mansoor Noor
A sit-down with the director and some of the cast.
You may have seen the very arresting image of broccoli eating which is the promo shot for Slaughterhouse by Anchuli Felicia King. I had terrific fun today chatting about the show, opening this week, with the Director, Benita de Wit and actors Brooke Rayner, Stephanie Somerville and Tom Matthews. The show is bedding down at Belvoir as part of 25A with a chunk of white wall and thumping music and high UV blue lighting and I was so lucky to get a chance to speak with these witty and engaging artists who generously gave up some of their precious time in a break from tech week to talk about the show.
Judith: So … from your media release it’s “a multi-disciplinary production with conflicting point of views”? How does that sound, Benita?
Benita: (nods all round) That sounds pretty on point. Yeah, the play’s structured almost like a detective story. We know that something's happened and we see all these different accounts of what happened from different people's perspectives. And we also have multiple live video feeds and there are pre-recorded video transitions and so there's a lot of different media telling the story.
Judith: And the writer is doing with the tech?
Benita: Felicia is also the video and sound designer … she is busy!
Judith: And what's that like, Brooke, having to work with tech in that way? So close.
Brooke: Oh, yeah. I've had some experience with combining AV and theatre when I worked at VCA, but it's really exciting being able to film as well as watch it happen on stage. And I think it's going to be interesting for the audience to have a different insight through watching the video versus their point of view.
Judith: When you are acting, can you get distracted by what’s on the screen?
Stephanie: It's a little bit distracting, but I think that's just a part of getting used to it in Tech. It's almost in a way … I feel like I'm starting to build a relationship with the camera and that's sort of who I'm trying to affect. Because it's a monologue, and I'm on my own but you still have to imagine that you're affecting your own relationship with someone, so that ends up being what that dialogue is about. So, although it's distracting, it's, sort of, good because it's like you're receiving something back in a weird kind of way.
Judith: So, is a character created with an idea that he will be visually perceived?
Tom: With DJ I guess. For me, whenever I do any character, it's always very physical and usually big … I've had experience in clowning and circus and stuff. What I found interesting with DJ is … some of the character is very much based around the cameras being right in front of him when everything has to be quite small instead. Which does then affect how I view the character because if he's not going to be big why is he coming in really small? So yeah, definitely it affects it but, at the end of the day, it is still a live performance and I'm still performing to the audience. Video is an element of that but, for me, it's still very much a theatrical production and there's still a huge element of creating the character from the theatrical part rather than the film.
Judith: And how did this project come about?
Benita: I was actually looking for a play to pitch to a festival about two years ago for other purposes and I'd worked with Felicia before as a video and production designer. And I was just hanging out and getting coffee and I asked … what are some really good new plays I could pitch? She's … well, I actually write plays and she sent me the script for Slaughterhouse which was the second thing she'd ever written. I was … this writing is amazing and we didn't end up doing it for that festival but we got together a group of actors and did a reading and then did another development and then when the Belvoir 25A program came up, I thought this feels like a really good home for this thing that we've been working on together. I've always known her as a video designer, so it made sense to both have her as the playwright and also bring her in in that other way too.
Judith: And the name, Slaughterhouse?
Benita: The show is about a company that is creating an ethical eating app. But there's also, and I want to give too much away, but one of the characters, in some ways, is related to actual slaughterhouses. So, it's both literal and perhaps a little bit more metaphorical about the experience in this cutthroat company.
Judith: No spoilers in the media release about the characters. Tom about your character it just says … DJ.
Tom: (laughing) Yes, he's quite separate from a lot of the other things going on but very integral to what happens and this big event that happened. He is quite separate in his own world and with Benita and with Felicia, the way that we've set up his scene, it's quite different to the others and uses the tech in a very different way.
Judith: Spoiler free but not helpful … I bet there’s a pun in the name. Brooke, who do you play?
Brooke: I play Bianca.
Judith: Is she the addictions, the drugs, the vision or the email theft?
Brooke: (everyone laughing) The macabre addiction that we can’t say much about. But for me she's a very fascinating character because she will start a sentence here and end up in a completely different place; sort of dig herself into a hole that she needs to crawl out of. Her mind’s always buzzing and jumping all over the place.
Judith: Is that lack of focus or is it purposeful?
Brooke: I think people interpret it as a lack of focus and her having a lack of intelligence, but I think she's so intelligent that she has so much going on that she doesn't know how to communicate it in the best way.
Judith: Um interesting. And Stephanie, who are you?
Stephanie: I'm playing the character of Sasha and she's the CFO of the company, so she's sort of in charge of money matters.
Judith: There’s a financial disaster in the play somewhere?
Stephanie: Well, she would say it's not her fault, but she would say that about quite a few things that happen throughout the course of the play! I really feel for her and I’ll be interested to see how an audience reacts to her. Because when I first read the character, I was … oh she's probably one of the sanest, most grounded, down-to-earth people in this play and my thoughts on that have been completely twisted now! Yeah, she's really quite interesting. She puts up this veneer and this, um mask, of who she wants people to see her as. And yeah, there's someone very different underneath all that. I think she is still figuring out leadership … she doesn't quite know what she's doing, yeah, but she's trying her best!
Benita: With all of the characters what interests me about the writing is … who we think they each are when we first meet them, is actually not really who they are. They all unfold in different ways and I think there are definitely are core themes of the play. One of which is very much about the dehumanization of one of the people in this workplace. I think that's a really interesting theme and then also the idea of ethical eating and consumerism.
Particularly with everything that is under debate right now with climate change and what it does to the Earth to eat a lot of meat. I think that's a really interesting topic that is also addressed by someone in the show. What’s interesting about the play is that it seems like there are a lot of different random unconnected things but as you get deeper into it, it all does start to form one picture.
Judith: And what will the audiences take away?
Brooke: I think, definitely, a curiosity and another perspective on people… I feel like we're watching these five different characters who have their own issues and quirks. Particularly for my character, I feel like it's about how we perceive ‘the other’ and how we isolate people.
Judith: What’s the rehearsal room like? Fun or serious?
Tom: It's been a lot of fun. (nods again from all). As far as blocking and building of the work goes, it's been very much just playful. Sitting down the script was a big thing, because, obviously, you're working with a monologue and the script is very dense and quite clever. And so, we sat down with the script, we marked it all out, we figured out what it means and then it was just getting up on the floor and just having to play with it. It's just been really playful, especially with the camera.
Judith: So, it’s a series of monologues?
Stephanie: Yeah, I would say so ... well … it definitely is a series of monologues but there's also these transitions where we're interacting with each other. It never really feels, for me, like my character’s alone in a room. Or, I'm talking to myself. It definitely feels like she's interacting with a presence of some kind and trying to change and shift people's views of her and of what has happened. So, yeah, they’re monologues but they don't exist in a little bubble like a monologue usually does.
Judith: I have to ask about the hero image of the show.
Benita: It's actually a very fun story … Felicia and I pitched this play to 25A and we were both in the middle of other projects. We got selected which was amazing and then 25A said … you have five days, we need a hero image for the show! And I was … I don't want to be in it, Felicia woouuld you like to? She came back … not really but I guess I will be!
We were talking about the themes of it and there's, obviously, ethical eating and slaughterhouse and we were … how can we capture that in an image? And we landed on … let's just get a whole bunch of veggies! Felicia and I were not in the same city at this point; this is all happening via Facebook Chat! We didn't want it to be too on the nose with meat or blood, and she's also a vegan, so we decided to get a whole bunch of veggies. And she did a photoshoot by herself in her bedroom with vegetables and holding her own camera, and she ended up with this one with broccoli and then she had ketchup on her face and it was so gross and so off-putting. We were … yeah, that's the one to promote the show!
People have been intrigued by the image so it must be doing something right!
Rehearsal images supplied by Feed Range Co.
Up for a cancer play? Lead actress, Cheryl Ward thinks you’ll be ok.
Wit by Margaret Edson is a Pultizer Prize winning play and it’s coming to Seymour Centre from Clock & Spiel Productions. Not convinced that I am up for a play about cancer, I reached out and asked for an interview. I wanted to know more about the play … as opposed to the dreary tear-jerking film starring Emma Thompson that I couldn’t make it through even though it has 4.35 stars on Rotten Tomatoes.
Cheryl Ward plays Vivian Bearing, a poetry professor specialising in John Donne, in this production directed by Helen Tonkin and as the character is on stage for the whole play, there’s nothing she doesn’t know. When we sat down for coffee, and a very late lunch for Cheryl, we compared our experiences of ovarian cancer having taken one of the people we most love and found each other speaking the same language.
Judith: You’ve got a book of John Donne poetry beside your bed?
Cheryl: Oh Yeah!! (laughing) I did a lot of reading about three or four months ago including, actually, The Faerie Queen. Well not all of it, but chapters … I mean it’s this thick. It's just because I make a reference to it. I read as far back as where the metaphysical poets got their ideas from, just touching on it, to see if I could actually understand it; and it didn't send my brain into paroxysms. Because I just worried that it was going to be so difficult to actually understand.
Judith: Had you studied Donne at school?
Cheryl: No, never really heard of him.
Judith: Well, I went to a Church of England school so I am steeped in his works. One aspect of the play I will get for sure.
Cheryl: It’s interesting that the play has snide comments at Shakespeare yet he opens and closes the show. ‘Flights of Angels’ is what I’m kissed goodbye with.
Judith: Is that a spoiler that there’s a goodbye?
Cheryl: Not really, I say at the beginning that I am going to die. Full stop. The spoiler would be who gets to say goodbye.
Judith: Do you think a lot of people have seen the film? Is that your audience?
Cheryl: No, I don’t think so because that was 2001. They changed Emma Thompson’s age in the film too. And for something that Emma Thompson is in … it’s humourless!
Judith: I invited a friend saying it doesn’t look very cheerful but it did win the Pulitzer!
Cheryl: Exactly … so you can relax. I think that the cancer has very little to do with it, it could be anything. But cancer is universal. Everyone has someone who's touched by it, like you and I, or they've been touched by it themselves… they know they know the fear.
So the fear that the cancer induces is what Edson uses to couch my character’s realization that she hasn't been a good person and to get her to know what she needs to do to end her life well. The only thing that everybody takes seriously and understands, is cancer. If you said she, you know, has a mysterious disease or something, it doesn't have that instant bam everybody knows. There’s that urgency that everyone would understand.
Judith: I didn’t get as far as any redemption arc in the film.
Cheryl: It's not she's not a bad person. She's just very isolated and has never, you know … she doesn't respect simplicity. She doesn't respect, not mediocrity, but she doesn't respect average people. You need to be able to battle with her and all that stuff and she's always thought … she's a challenge. But then to actually realize, at the end, that there’s kindness … yeah.
Judith: The audio, is it ‘flights of angels’?
Cheryl: Adam’s the composer and it sounds, it's not … but there was just this something about it… like he's made a whole soundtrack album of hospital noises. It’s quite beautiful especially when I go to flashbacks as a child … it’s all piano but to me it sounds like something magical. There’s a bit where I go back to where I’m 5 and Helen didn’t want anything too twee and he's made, sort of like a nursery rhyme, but to me, it sounds like a nursery rhyme made out of slight beeps and dots of hospital.
And the music is under the voice and there is a moment where I actually do the poetry almost like it's been orchestrated. There's just this one section where I'm enjoying the language and I get to almost sing the poem with a soundtrack!
Judith: There are male characters in it, but it's a basically a woman's story. Do you think that, apart from the partners of people who've been through this, that men can respond to this piece?
Cheryl: Oh yes. Audiences have to be able to understand other points of view. I mean, we would never go and see Hamlet. And Vivian is almost genderless, androgynous. She doesn't need anything like that. Even in the character’s description, which I do not fit in any way, shape or form … I have never come across such a detailed character description in a play. But no-one says … sit down, my neck is hurting because you are so tall … but it’s in the description. I’m not but why is it there?
In almost every play I have ever been in, if the character has curly hair it’s because later on someone will mention it. So you can’t ignore it and have to address it with a wig or something. But for 99% of this play I’m either sitting in a chair, in the bed or I'm on stage on my own so you've got no one to measure me against that I’m tall. Why is Vivian described as tall? … she needs that for an imposing androgyny.
Judith: Tallness aside, are you making any physical changes to play the role?
Cheryl: I have lost 11 kilos so far… I’m exercising a lot because I've got to. I've now done runs four times. Yesterday, we did two runs and it's not like a normal two show day where you have four, five, six hours between. We just turned around, I ate a bit of hummus and then we kept going.
And I do get home and I just sort of sit there staring at the wall. Because she's hiding a lot of what she's feeling and you are hiding a lot of what you're physically feeling because the audience doesn't want to watch someone in pain for an hour and a half. So we've chosen moments where I get to let it out but it is exhausting. So I thought best bet was lose some weight and get fitter.
Judith: So, on that topic, audience wise, for all of us touched by cancer, does seeing this play ask too much of us?
Cheryl: I hope, and I can only go off what I feel, I think Vivian is hysterical. I find her very funny! I play her very sarcastic, very funny. That's why I cannot believe what they did to Emma Thompson in that film. It’s wonderful if you feel like having a weep … I find some parts of the script manipulative, in that American way of they want you to have a weep. And so does the director, Helen. So we are fighting it to make it less saccharine … she lets me get angry, she lets me get sarcastic. Vivian gets Maggie Smith dry!
If the audience are laughing as much as we hope that they will … or think that they can, because that's what we want them to do … we will all be learning a lesson here. Recognizing it's not supposed to be some sort of, you know, deathly religious experience here. It’s just a plea to say … please, leave as well as you can. Kindness is key. And it takes her a very long time because Vivian is so stubborn.
You can always sit on the corner and bugger off if you're hating it or if it's too much … I would rather that and put you through pain. We're trying to help.
Photo Credit: Alison Lee Rubie
Tales of Foveaux
Zach Selmes tells us more about Reprise Theatre Co.
It stands to reason that Tales of Foveaux is playing on a Monday night. It is the inaugural production for the newly founded Reprise Theatre Co, a new theatre company founded by emerging artists and creatives who studied the Australian Institute of Music’s (AIM) Bachelor of Music (Musical Theatre) two year intensive program. There are many names performing in this production who are probably in something or rehearsing the rest of the week; it’s a stellar cast of emerging talent. Monday night is traditionally the night off for theatre folk.
One of the performers is Zach Selmes, who put his hand up to be interviewed when I approached the company. Lost in the new AIM building we eventually found somewhere quiet to have a chat.
Judith: So Zach I see you around a lot, you’ve been in quite a few productions, would I be right in thinking you are not necessarily getting paid?
Zach: (Laughing) Absolutely - independent theatre certainly doesn't help any bills but I have always felt like I needed to get myself out there and stay out there constantly to get noticed. I feel like there are so many there, and there are only so many roles in mainstage shows and those briefs only get sent out to so many agents. And even if you're lucky enough to score an agent after a uni degree, there's only limited chance that you'll get into one of those big shows that will be able to pay the bills. And so I always felt like I needed to be my own number one fan and make sure that I was getting all of the auditions that I could.
While I was lucky enough to be welcomed back for consecutive shows with companies like Little Triangle and Fingerless Theatre, I never would have had that chance if it were not for taking a risk on a new company and coming together with other young creatives - both companies produced their inaugural shows through Fringe. I think some theatre graduates can be condescending about auditioning for independent work or think they're above it.
It's up to us as the next generation of performers to help create the art we want to see on our stages.
Judith: Hence this show from a new company. Is the purpose of this production exactly what you've been saying to put yourselves out there?
Zach: Yeah. Absolutely, I think it's so important for us to be creating our own work because, at the end of the day, other people seeing us is the only way that people who cast are going to know what kind of work we can do. Word of Mouth only really gets you so far. And while you can have an agent who will stress to a producer… this person has what it takes. But unless that person sees you really giving it on the stage or in the room, it's hard to garner that reputation when you don't have as many opportunities to be seen.
Judith: Has Reprise come together as an ad hoc group?
Zach: It very much started with our Producer/Director and MD Maddie and Zachary. They came together they saw this hole where new grads weren't being seen as much. And I think, like me, they have personally learned so much more through experience versus going and grinding on in classes. I think that I learned so much more through having that opportunity to perform and, as a guy as well, I'm very lucky. At AIM I got to be seen a lot more but there are so many women who come through the course, get to do one musical, and then they've got this training but don't necessarily have as many opportunities to be seen out in the community.
Judith: So, is the show going to be individuals who’ve just chosen a piece or does it have a throughline?
Zach: Our producers opened it to us in the AIM alumni community to see who would like to perform and we came in and auditioned … some people wrote monologues; some people brought in songs that were just to showcase- I can perform please do something with me. And then our producers came together again and gave it to us once they had formulated this cast of interested grads. They asked us what we would like to see in the show. And the show is called Tales of Foveaux and it's equal parts us telling stories about how our student time formulated where we've gone in the industry or the types of performers that we want to be and how we approach the industry. And this show specifically is a kind of first-person take on being in that audition room and the effects that it, perhaps, has on us after the room.
Judith: It feels like it's got a touch of the Chorus Line in it.
Zach: It definitely does, it definitely does! It’s, of course, a Music Theatre cabaret and so we've got some nice little nods to famous musicals. Our Music Theatre colleagues in the audience will enjoy it for sure.
Judith: What instrumentation are using for the show?
Zach: We've got a full band.
Zach: We've got a piano, two keyboards - I think, guitar, bass, cello, drums. It's a really nice full sound. We had the sitz just on Monday and up until then we'd mostly been rehearsing with the piano or even rehearsing a Capella in our groups, to kind of focus more on the dynamics and the acting, but it was really, really great to just get in the room and just have a sing and feel it with the music. So it was really great for us to feel it musically with the rest of the band … come together as a group of musicians versus just putting on a show.
Judith: Of course families are going to come, your friends are going to come, but who else do you want to come?
Zach: We’ve invited a number of agents and, of course, people that we've worked with in the past.
Judith: Networking is really important. What have you decided on doing?
Zach: Absolutely. I've decided to do a song from Merrily We Roll Along that I did a few years ago with Little Triangle.
Judith: I know quite a few names who are performing and it will be nice to see those people not necessarily in a role.
Zach: I'm really glad that you brought that up. I think that one thing about creating your own work is that … it's very easy for us to look at casting briefs and think okay do I fit into that role? I mean there are countless shows that I did or didn't audition for based solely on the brief but at the end of the day I'm not a casting director. So, I have no idea what those people were necessarily looking for.
That choice to pigeonhole myself based on that brief might have been detrimental to me. It's so great to have an opportunity as a performer, to create your own character and give yourself this own story. Or alternatively for it to less be a character and more a chance to show off who you are. And let those agents or potential networking people see you for the creative that you are versus just the performer that they see quickly in an audition room.
Judith: And do you think this group will go forward, do something else after Tales of Foveaux?
Zach: This show has absolutely just been setting the groundwork for the company. I think it was really smart starting off with a cabaret so that we could tell the stories of the people who are involved. And build that revenue so that we could put on a proper production next year. But this is all, certainly, just groundwork so that next year we can put on our first proper musical and open the doors to a lot more than the first 14 who chose to be involved.
Hopefully, we, as that first cast create something that people want to be a part of as well. We’re hoping they'll see Tales of Foveaux and think I would love to work with this company next year.
The show features an ensemble cast including, Victoria Bullard, Levi Burrows, Elizabeth Evans, Martin Everett, Abbie Gallagher, Elizabeth Gunther, Katelin Koprivec, Cassandra Leigh Maguire, Skye Pollard, Nicole Quigley, Jasmine Sands, Zach Selmes, Jake Tyler & Kate Wright. The production team includes, Kayla French, Zachary Goldfinch & Maddison Maie Epthorp.
‘Animals’ opens in Australian cinemas Sept 12.
Early this year I spoke with Director Sophie Hyde on the phone from her home in Adelaide when her film Animals was screening at the Sydney Film Festival. Now, having seen and loved the film, I had the opportunity for a sit-down chat when Sophie was in Sydney for preview screenings ahead of its opening September 12.
Judith: Have you had a busy time promoting the film?
Sophie: I have. This is the first bit of this tour that we're doing but we've done Sundance and Sundance London and lots of stuff in the UK and Ireland and a bunch of film festivals, so busy in that way. But this is the beginning of the Australian release.
Judith: When I was going through the media book I was struck again by all the names and roles and it set me thinking about what an exercise in advanced leadership that directing a film is. Have you always been drawn to leadership?
Sophie: What a great question. It is a leadership task and there's multiple areas that are leadership tasks in terms of making a movie. You know, as a director, you create the feeling and the culture of the set; and the culture of the project, I think, a lot of the time. And that part of it is really important to me … that people feel respected and like they're doing good work and they're challenged and that they know what's happening. And these things, you know, you can't just say you want them; you have to say you want them out loud and also enact things that can make them happen. And, to me, that's across many, many, areas of the filmmaking … but did I start as a leader?
I guess so … other people would say that I was a leader. I always felt like a different kind of leader. Like I never felt, um, resolved. I felt uncertain, quite vulnerable, a whole lot of elements that I felt were the opposite of what it was to be a director or be a leader. But, I was a leader. I brought people together and always wanted to make sure everyone was working at their best capacity. You know, that's a big part of what I want to do. It took me a long time to understand that mine was a different kind of leadership; that I could embrace that and actually use that. Rather than having a certainty or a kind of feeling that I should walk into the room and everyone should follow me because they respect me. This, sort of, version that we're taught about.
Judith: It's a very old-fashioned idea but pervasive idea?
Sophie: Yeah, and yet it's still so. I mean, on a film set, generally speaking, a crew believes that the more certain a director is and the more they just answer instantly … the better. Which is not really a true of the end product but, on a set, everyone's working so hard that they can sometimes feel that.
Judith: Yeah, I can see that. Still at the beginning … the writer of the book and the screenplay, Emma Jane Unsworth, said she loved your initial mood boards. Did you see the film in images when you first considered the project?
Sophie: I really responded to the book and they were looking for a director and they had sent me an early script and I had an instant kind of visual response. I felt like I could see a way of creating a world that felt very tactile and interesting and visceral and a bit messy. And so I put together a lot of images but I also responded in words. I sent them a long document back that had a lot of imagery, a lot of stuff about the relationships, and a lot of things that I loved about the book that I would want to draw out in the movie. It was … if I was going to do this film, this is where I would go with it and they embraced that.
Judith: And how much of that changed when you had that different setting? You did tell me last time we spoke that you fell in love with Dublin for the film, though the book itself is set in Manchester.
Sophie: It's funny because it really did change; I feel like the visual style comes out of Dublin. It's the cobblestone streets and the dilapidated houses and a certain way that the girls dress … that really upped the ante in terms of the glamour of the girls. The kind of grotty glamour that they've got going on. Because the book was much more ‘street’, like high tops and hoodies and sweaters and stuff and Manchester could have gone more that way.
But when I look at my mood boards from the original pitch, there's a feeling of that in there, even then. I guess it's just that that Dublin and everyone who comes onto the project, the designers and the costume designers all feed into it becoming a whole image. So it's not just pieces.
Judith: I was fascinated, actually, with dull sparkles on Tyler’s costume and Laura's hair. You could tell what had gone on in the hours before we see them!
Sophie: (laughing) I mean that's right! You want to create something that feels lived-in; that feels like they haven't come out of the makeup chair. But, also, it’s particularly important in this where we are Laura's point of view. And so you need to feel like you know she has gone through whatever she's been going through. I would often say to the designers … it's like they need to have really glamorous, glittery, sparkles around but also really dirty fingernails! And like a beautiful eyeliner, but there's bits of it crusted in their eyes and I was always trying to find that part of it. Because they, you know, they're very vivacious women, but they're also stuck and they're not pretty, they're not trying to be pretty.
Judith: So true. I loved the film by the way, I haven’t said that yet! But one of the things I loved is the way Tyler is the rescuer yet she is quite needy. Especially when her back story starts to kick in.
Sophie: And sometimes she’s the antagonist! Or in many ways and she is the saviour in some ways but it's part of an idea that you don’t have to stay with and be with that person forever. Someone can give you something and the tools that you need and the challenge and provocation that you need without being someone that you are then going to hang out with every day.
She is certainly very needy and she’s a character we only see through Laura's eyes. And so we see her being very performative and fabulous, and also we see underneath the surface a little bit. But we never really go to her.
Judith: On that topic, how you make that female friendship so important, so romantic, without giving it overtones?
Sophie: It's just a really interesting thing, isn't it? Because, you know, female friendship between two women who aren't sexually involved, and I don't want to say straight women because I'm not a hundred percent sure that they're both entirely straight, but it can be very needy and it can be very physical. And I think the physical is something that people who don't have those kind of friendships are surprised by how physical it is.
So I agree, I don't find any lesbian overtones or undertones in it at all … but I know that there are a lot of men who feel like there is. It's the male gaze. For me, they are so deeply connected, they physically connected with each other, but it's a different thing to a sexual connection between the two of them. It's heavily romantic of course and it's desperately needy and it's all the things that go with that. But some men go like … at the beginning though, they're clearly! (laughing) And I think, God, really? It doesn’t look like that at all to me.
We didn't need to speak about that really explicitly because it also wouldn't have mattered to me how that came across - if somebody really felt that they were in a relationship or sometimes had sex or something, that that was okay. But I didn't think they did and I don't think the girls did either.
Judith: Nor me! I have to say I found the sex in the film very respectful and, importantly, having that woman's point of view.
Sophie: For one thing, sex in a scene in a film is really important to me because it's like an expression of how you feel in the relationship between two people and that can be really awkward and all sorts of things. And some people think it's very frank, that sex, even though it's not very explicit, but it is quite … well, they just sort of get on with it.
But I remember we talked a lot about the film Call Me by Your Name. This is a strange reference; I'd forgotten this! But they do this beautiful thing with the lead where he is looked at all the time, but he still retains the subject point of view - the position of subject not of object. I was really interested in how they did that, because I feel, like his body is constantly in the shot. You're constantly looking at him. He's very beautiful … all of these things. But I feel with him all the time and often when we've seen women in movies, when they are looked at like that they become simply ‘object’; they become ‘not subject’. And I don't know how else to express it. So I really looked at that movie. That’s what I feel I want to see … where you can look at, and be with, and feel with, the character. You don't have to reject the pleasure of viewing them, but it's viewing them in a different way. We just worked very hard to be with Laura and her feelings the whole time in all of the pieces of the film … all of the sound design, in the way it was shot and the way it's cut was all about that.
After their first foray into touring, I spoke to Bearfoot Theatre’s Riley McLean.
When Riley McLean of Newcastle’s Bearfoot Theatre was in Sydney as part of their I Hope It’s Not Raining in London tour I thoroughly enjoyed talking about their hopes for the production and for the tour. Now the tour has ended, we had the chance to meet up, sadly once again where there was a non-functioning coffee machine, to chat about the company’s adventures.
Judith: Spill! What adventures have you had?
Riley: Wow … so we went on a tour! We did it! What a crazy experience.
Yeah, good things, bad things. I've learnt so much, which is all you can ask for really. An absolutely fantastic experience to have especially so early in the creative development of a career.
Judith: Let’s start with the venues.
Riley: All wildly different. Our smallest was a 30 seat black box and our largest was a 450 seater which is like, basically a proscenium, when we were like, oh, wow, this is large. But they asked us to come so they solved it. It was really interesting and I guess it kept us thinking on our feet because you’re bumping that day and sometimes we have to re-block entire things just to make it work for that space … which is something I've never experienced before. So it was like, okay, we all have to know the show so well that if, yep, if we do have to change everything that's fine.
Like we had a tiny, tiny cabaret venue in Melbourne called The Butterfly Club which was the size of our vinyl flooring. In the show, we have this whole thing where the crew does stuff around the space … we had to actually put them on the floor in the front of the room. So that took a lot of re-blocking. Then there were sight lines for torches and what the shadows were doing from the front and centre and from the side. It was crazy and a wonderful creative challenge.
Judith: Who were your audience? Did you find any differences?
Riley: I found definitely in Melbourne, we got more of a … we're just indie people who enjoy going to see theatre. So that was really cool. I found the Sydney audiences were mostly just people who knew people who knew us. Yeah, like word of mouth rather than people who just go because they like art. Melbourne was a lot more, kind of, free-flowing.
Judith: Do you think Sydney audiences can’t move past the Newcastle connections.
Riley: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes, so we had that draw in Melbourne... they’re from New South Wales! Whereas Sidney doesn't care … it's from Newcastle must be worse than the stuff from here.
Judith: Yeah. We have the reverse problem, too. Oh it’s from Melbourne, it must be good! Tell me about the ages of the audiences, you are a youth theatre company but did you get many older people?
Riley: Yes. Definitely. I think we've got more older people than younger people which was really interesting because we are such a young group. But, especially in Melbourne, it was older audiences.
Judith: So your producing skills got a boost … how did you go with advertising and so forth?
Riley: It's so interesting because in Newcastle, we have a Facebook group that connects all the companies. We're all on it and when there's a show, that's how we promote. Yeah, and there's nothing like that in Sydney or in Melbourne. Nothing like it. I found some Facebook groups and I posted on them and nothing happened. It was like … no one uses these, these are not active. So finding different ways to promote was very, very interesting.
Judith: Did you have to change your marketing? Away from Youth Theatre, for example.
Riley: Yeah, indie theatre, alternative theatre, depending on where we were. Sometimes I pushed the LGBT themes but sometimes I didn't, because I was … perhaps here that's actually a drawback! It was interesting what different things worked? Yep, and it's a really hard show to sell.
Judith: Well, it took me by surprise; that was not what I was expecting. And what was your best experience while you were away?
Riley: I would say the best experience, honestly, was performing back home. I've gotta say that because, as fun as it was going to all these different places, just great coming back to somewhere where we are so supported. Everywhere else was just throwing ourselves in the deep end and we’ve got more support than ever now people know about us. People coming to see it and getting behind it … it was just so lovely to have that support from Newcastle.
Judith: Next steps?
Riley: Next steps are: we will be coming to Sydney again in October. We've got another show that is coming to Shop Front in Carlton. So, now that we've done our first, kind of, dip in the water we'll see if we can try and double down.
Judith: What about this production, I Hope It’s Not Raining in London, will it have a revival?
Riley: It was already kind of a revival from last year. Yeah. I think this one we will leave for a bit. The playwright is going to have another look and there were definitely things we developed along the tour. Things where we said… Hey next time we do it, let's do this. We started discussions and we had conversations about what was good to keep and what to rework. It was really invaluable having all those different audiences because you could see things that you wouldn't normally see that are working or aren't working. Because different areas would react to certain jokes and certain things in completely different ways. So it was a good chance to take a step back and really analyse the script as well as the production.
Judith: Because Bearfoot is committed to new work, isn’t it? So what’s on the boil next?
Riley: It’s two years in for Bearfoot and up til now it’s been work from our little collective … propose something and we might put it on. However, now we've started the Bearfoot writers’ program where people submit scripts, submit their applications, and we choose a script to produce next year. So that'll start becoming a thing where we can then help younger writers develop their script. It doesn’t have to be finished, we will help them out to produce it. It’s just developing new works where the idea is to put on a work; see how the audience responds; re-work it; and do it again. I Hope It's Not Raining will have a bit of a gap because we've just done it two years in a row.
Katelin steps out of the ‘Nine’ rehearsal room for a chat.
Having seen Katelin Koprivec’s work during the Sydney Cabaret Competition, I was very pleased to get some chat time with this engaging artist who is currently in rehearsal for Nine with Little Triangle.
Judith: I’m not sure that people will be familiar with this musical, so can we get an idea about the show.
Katelin: Well … the musical Nine is about a film director Guido Contini who's 40 and going through a midlife crisis! He's agreed to put on a film that he has no script or no idea about yet and so, in the process, we learn about his Muses and the women in his life. Mistresses and his wife, and all the different relationships he has with these women and how he uses them to forge the way for his film. So, through the process, we get to know all of them as secondary characters.
Judith: Is there nine of them?
Katelin: No. The nine of the title comes from … well, to begin, the musical’s based on a play called 8 ½ by Federico Fellini. He called 8 ½ because it was semi-autobiographical … he had directed and written eight films so he called it 8 ½. There's a moment in this musical that's all about Guido's life as a nine-year-old; his first apparition, dream, is when he's nine. We have a Little Guido, as well, who turns up in the show.
As the play goes on, we have a blurred perception of what's reality and what's fake and what's him dreaming and what's happening in his head and what's happening in reality. So, it's quite a journey! There’s a lot of interpretation for the audience which is really fun and it’s so much fun to play the women in his life because they're all so different but all have the same goal.
Judith: Yet, when I had a look at the song list there’s virtually no solos.
Katelin: A few but, yeah, there's a lot of featured ensemble and a lot of sung through scenes so it just, kind of, keeps going. And there's not a lot of dialogue without music which is great, challenging though, to do.
Judith: So does that mean that there's a lot of choreography involved?
Katelin: Yeah. There is a lot of choreography and there's a lot of staging and a lot of movement. Our wonderful director Alexander Andrews, he loves to work with visuals and movement … he plots all that out first. And then we play in the room and do all those fun things. So it's quite nice to do a piece which is based around movement and it enhances the singing, because the score is quite difficult.
Actually, it's one of the most difficult shows I've done vocally, because so much is expected of everyone because you go from show tunes to operatic solos to jazzy elements. There's so many styles!
Judith: It’s set in the 1960s. Are you playing it in period and does that mean a lot of research?
Katelin: Yeah … a lot on costume; a lot on posture; on choreography from the time as well. But also in separating when he has dreams and when he has the realistic moments … so what he wants them to be like and what they actually can be! Yeah, there's a lot of things like that. Also jewellery and hairstyles and make-up! The makeup’s really fun. So, yeah, there's been a lot of research from the cast but I love how it's written. It does your job for you a lot as well.
Judith: You mean for the characters?
Katelin: Yes, I think apart from physically, when we look at it visually, it being in the 60s, it is a very modern story as well. To look at other women in our life and who are they, and where do we put them and where do we assume they go? Because it is written from a man's perspective and so … it’s still happening.
Judith: That’s interesting because Wikipedia, so it must be true, says something about the film becoming an “essay on the power of women”.
Katelin: (thinking) I think it really depends on how you take the show as its ending. I think the audience member has to really decide whether the consequences of Guido's actions have been learned and felt or whether they haven't. And specifically how we're doing the show, it really is up to the audience's interpretation and for them to decide.
But yeah, there are some characters who I think don't feel that power or they feel it being taken away; then there's other characters who are almost completely reborn at the end of the show. So it's really fantastic to play with and figure out which one your character is!
Judith: Does Alex have a lot of these characters on stage at the same time?
Katelin: Yes. Yes, he does. I would say for the first thirty minutes of the show you probably see most of us on stage. And it’s also playing with being actors in the film as our characters and being ourselves as actors. So it's quite Brechtian and there's a lot of fun play with minimalism. Yeah, so it's all about storytelling and it's all about the relationships and the connections and, for the audience, really following the character that you find the most connection with … because there are 16 women all together on stage, I think. So we all bring something different and every character is at a different stage in life as well. So I think everyone will have a great time connecting with at least one and following them through.
Judith: Fellini is not known for being cheerful, is it a dark production?
Katelin: (laughs) It actually has a lot more lighter moments ... everything is really playful especially because we are, almost, the puppets of Guido's world and where he wants us to go. And there's a lot of pull and push of whether we let him do that or not. The rehearsal experience has been so much fun, so I can't see how the playfulness will go away. I think it'll stay there in the show.
Judith: What’s your favourite song to sing in the show?
Katelin: I love ‘Overture’ which is the first moment in the show. Yeah, and it's all the women, 16 voices, but it's just “la” the whole time. The music is orchestrated in such a beautiful way and it's written so beautifully and it shows you the whole show just in the musical elements. I'm music obsessed so that's my favourite song to do.
Judith: I’ve seen your work with Little Triangle before but recently really enjoyed your character of Mrs Einstein at the Sydney Cabaret Festival. Is she coming back?
Katelin: Yeah, this is my fourth show with Little Triangle! She is doing all the submissions for festivals and theatres, so she will definitely be appearing next year at the latest.
Judith: How did she arrive to you?
Katelin: Funny story; my auntie's actually an actor and her first gig out of drama school was a documentary playing Einstein's wife, but she never spoke in it. It's all just very angsty black and white… it was for SBS I think. And over Christmas this last year we were sitting there and we thought well, let's pull it out because it's her so young and it's, you know, funny to watch back. And we're sitting there, after a few rum custards that my Grandma makes, and I just turned to her and said …it's a cabaret! We could make this a cabaret because she's very closely aligned to me, being a Slavic woman. So it was exciting to find someone who's quite successful, but unknown, to play and putting some of my culture out there … it just happened organically.
The final of our sit-downs with the director and cast of Rainbow’s End.
Almost Opening Night for Jane Harrison’s Rainbow’s End from Darlinghurst Theatre Company in association with Moogahlin Performing Arts. In the last of these sit-downs I spoke with Frederick Copperwaite. Fred has had such a long career that time spent in his company leads one off onto all sort of topics.
Frederick is a Bunuba man from south-west Kimberley region of Western Australia and is a co-founder and co-artistic director of Moogahlin Performing Arts.
Judith: I have to say … I had the most enormous trouble trying to work out who you play in this production. Even my media briefing just says ‘multiple roles’.
Fred: Various!! I play, I think … actually worked it out last night, five characters. And, essentially, I play the white characters; the white men. So sort of representing the white patriarchal influence on families in the play. As you would be aware the play is essentially about women and there are no Aboriginal men present. But there is one Aboriginal man in the play who, unfortunately, has become a drinker, lives in the cork trees which is an area where the drinkers is gather, and he also is the perpetrator of a crime. So that's the only Aboriginal man in the play. There are several other white characters.
Judith: Like the bank manager?
Fred: The bank manager, the inspector who has come there for an inspection regarding the assimilation project that's going on … a program that's been advocated by the government. There's a policeman and there's also a rent collector who, once they move into town, they have to start paying the rent to. Yep. So these characters all represent the white patriarchy. The government, I guess.
The inspector and the bank manager are interesting characters because they also, in some ways, encourage Gladys to explore the idea, and to embrace, assimilation. So that policy at the time - the government was promoting it and a lot of white people thought it was a good idea. And so in the case of the inspector and the bank manager, they … through the example of putting money in the bank; through the example of sending the kids to school; and through better conditions through the assimilation process … they encourage her, or they set an example for her. But, of course, it's still always on the white terms.
So those characters are important because you get to see what was politically going on in the background there. And you also get to see the sense of the subtle racism that was going on. So these two guys are pretty pro-assimilation. You could say pro-Aboriginal people getting on, giving them a go, getting them opportunities but that subtle racism is always there in terms of … it always has to be on white terms.
Judith: As you say “various” characters.
Fred: Oh, it's, you know, in the writing really. I mean the characters are a bank manager and a policeman… yeah, archetypes. So, put a uniform on someone, or give them a table or a desk with a pen or with a pad and there’s a sort of policing in a way, or control! So all of those characters have a level control about them. The rent collector comes to get the rent. So there again there’s that control … if they don't pay the rent or their houses aren’t up to scratch, then that man has a full right to kick them out. Yeah, all of those characters, it’s fairly imbued with in the characters.
Judith: And the period? You are probably like me, these people are my parent’s generation. Does their experience resonate with you?
Fred: It’s a time on the cusp of that shift into social change. It does resonate, yeah. I feel playing these white characters contributes to the story. I obviously prefer to play Aboriginal characters, of course, but I think they are important in the overview of the story for you to see it in some sort of political and social context. So those characters are important and I obviously want to play them with integrity and honesty and just as people in the end. Each plays a big part in the telling of the story of those women.
Judith: In your long career what sort of changes have you seen in regards to culture blindness in casting?
Fred: Look it's been a long process and it's still a long process. There wasn't, 20 years ago, the amount of young actors from an Aboriginal heritage who are around the moment. The acting schools are really starting to embrace that and a lot more people are coming forward. So there's a lot more actors and, dare I say it, Aboriginal actors and this is the nub of the question. They’re actors and no one's called a white Anglo-Saxon actor … they are just called actors. Yeah, an actor is an actor is an actor and the white actors don't get identifiers. Yeah, and of course, that then pigeonholes them into those roles. And that's a problem.
The other question, the next big question, in terms of acting, but also in terms of the society is that Aboriginal people sometimes don't look Aboriginal in the context of how white people perceive that. So we have a range of people who identify as Aboriginal who don’t even have dark skin … lighter skinned Aboriginal people. This is something that this society hasn't even caught up with and certainly the industry hasn’t. So if you look at television, theatre, film at the moment here’s the thing … you want an ‘authentic’ Aboriginal person. And of course the question is, what does that mean? It's a very dangerous word. But that's changing; that nature of that is fast evolved and we will soon see a variety of people, from dark skin through to light-skinned, appearing.
Judith: It’s all credit to the community for driving that change. It’s been a sheer pleasure speaking with you but I should let you go back to rehearsal. One last question. I've been asking everyone the same question: the Eternity is such a venerable and historic building and, now, being a theatre which we all know absorbs experiences, what will this production leave in there?
Fred: Oh, I think this gives people an insight. It's a great story and because it's set in the past, you get a historical context of how Aboriginal people lived in in the 50s 40s 30s … that sense of being on the Mission, the sense of being oppressed, being watched, having to explain and account for everything. And, I guess, balancing that out against the modern day context where things certainly have changed; it’s much freer and there’s a much more liberal view, but still a lot of the questions that this play raises are still relevant today.
Particularly in the last speech that Gladys delivers in the meeting. A lot of those questions are still being asked and still have not been answered … questions around health, housing, education. Basic living conditions are still in a woeful state and have not been addressed. So this is the 1950s - this is 2020. What's changed? But I think but it's also a very gentle play with an underlying provocation.
Photo Credit: Robert Catto
A series of sit-downs with the director and cast of Rainbow’s End.
As we turn our interest to the men of Rainbow’s End, I spoke with Lincoln Vickery in sit-down session. Jane Harrison’s Rainbow’s End is the story of the Dear family of Aboriginal women who live together in a rundown shack on the Goulburn River flats. Set against the backdrop of the Queen’s visit in 1954, the play tells an uplifting story about the struggle for community acceptance during the Menzies era. The youngest daughter, Dolly, falls in love with a white man, Errol. The role played by Lincoln.
Judith: According to my research, the actor playing Errol usually plays all the white characters, but I gather that's not accurate for this production.
Lincoln: I do believe in the original production, yeah it was just one male actor who played all of those characters but in this one, I'm just playing Errol. Errol is a young man from Melbourne who's out in the area selling encyclopaedias.
Judith: He’s an aspirational young man isn’t he?
Lincoln: Absolutely. I think he wants to learn and travel and is open to new experiences. And he meets this girl and this family, which certainly opens him up.
Judith: Do think it's a genuine love? He seems to fall pretty quickly.
Lincoln: (laughing) Well, I mean, is any love genuine? Well, more genuine than others? He’s very young. And it's the 50s and, you know, it's after the war and everyone wants to fall in love, I guess. Is that any more genuine than anything else? As the actor, I think you have to play it as genuine. Otherwise, you know, what's the point?
Judith: What's it like having all this female energy around you?
Lincoln: It's great! Yeah, I don't know how else to describe it; it's fun and it's an awesome room that we've got – and it’s an amazing bunch of people.
Judith: Have you had to do much research on the period?
Lincoln: I did a little bit at the start, looking at the Indigenous walk-out that happened around this area around this time. Obviously I can't say too much, because that would be a spoiler, but because of Errol’s situation I had to do some research into that. I've done research around that sort of stuff and then we did, at the start, a lot of looking into … where's the area? Around Shepparton and the northern Victoria sort of space. It’s just a really fascinating area; Albury/Wodonga is the closest I've ever been.
Judith: You were with the Flying Fruit Flies there?
Lincoln: Yeah. It's an interesting part of the world.
Judith: He says to Dolly, doesn’t he … we'll get a flat in the city?
Lincoln: He’s from the city originally and I think in that moment, for Errol, being in the city is some sort of … I feel this as well, I know this feeling … living in the city is like making it! It’s better than living in the country or living a poorer kind of lifestyle. But, you know, maybe he has some things to learn over the course of the show!
Judith: Because eking out a living selling Britannicas can't be much fun.
Lincoln: Yeah. Yeah. I actually haven't thought about how much he's earning. You know, what is his yearly income, how does he do his taxes? I should look into that.
Judith: Well, it's probably more than the people he's selling to. He uses the word ‘humpy’ with Dolly, do you think he comes with preconceptions to that community?
Lincoln: A hundred percent on the income, yeah. Preconceptions? Absolutely. I think that Errol’s an outsider in a lot of ways in this show. And, even though he is kind of open and he's not super prejudiced in a lot of ways, but, you know, all white people have prejudice and you can't live in the world without understanding what it's like to have … a different racial experience, I guess. So yeah, I think, absolutely, he comes in with this kind of prejudice and these preconceived notions about what it is to be like … and even though he is, inverted commas, “a good guy”, as we all do, he has things to learn. Room to grow!
Judith: How does he cope with Nan and Gladys?
Lincoln: Hmm. I think he and Gladys get on famously because they share this love of intelligence and they value books and learning and all of that kind of thing. And that connection unites them, which is really great. And Dalara’s great to work with on that. Yeah, that works out!
Judith: Nan’s pretty feisty though?
Lincoln: Yeah, Nan’s a bit scarier … but the matriarch is always terrifying!
Judith: There must be concerns coming back at Errol from Nan?
Lincoln: Yes, especially from Nan. Because of her experience, she sees Errol as a threat … which is totally fair. It's a massive leap in a lot of ways because he is the guy that's going to take her baby girl away. Wants to anyway.
Judith: What would you like the audience to take away from the character of Errol?
Lincoln: Hard question. Umm. I think if Errol has a message in the show … being open and listening, allowing other voices into our lives is a good thing and not something that we should be afraid of. Having a different perspective about things is not bad for you.
Judith: Last question. I've been asking everyone the same question: the Eternity is such a venerable and historic building and, now, being a theatre which we all know absorbs experiences, what will this production leave in there?
Lincoln: That's a good question … there’s a lot of plays that are a bit dark but this play has such a warmth to it, and a love to it. I can imagine, if everything goes well and I don't fall over or forget my lines or die on stage or whatever, that it will leave the feeling of warmth and connection which all plays of this kind strive to do. And that's a lovely thing as a performer, as a theatre-maker, and it's just such a nice thing to leave a room with that uplift.
Photo Credit: Robert Catto
A series of sit-downs with the director and cast of Rainbow’s End.
Jane Harrison’s Rainbow’s End, produced by Darlinghurst Theatre Company in association with Moogahlin Performing Arts, in currently playing at the Eternity Theatre.
In this sit-down session I spoke with Phoebe Grainer who plays the third generation of the Dear family, the women at the heart of the story. Her mother, Gladys, and grandmother, Nan, live together in a rundown shack on the Goulburn River flats.
Phoebe is a Kuku Djungan woman from far north Queensland.
Judith: Everything I've read about this character of yours says ‘courage’. Is that how you see her?
Phoebe: Yes but I just feel like there's so many different things that she's getting influenced by in the times she’s living in. I don't even know whether teenager was an actual word or slang that they used back then but it would have been a time where there would have been a lot of rules and a lot of regulations for a young person. A young Aboriginal person, there’d be even more extra rules, you know!!
I think that she's constantly learning, she’s very curious about the world and she understands some things about it but that learning just gets more and more and more. She really does listen a lot to Nan, and she does listen to Gladys as well, but I think she has her own kind of views about everything.
Judith: What I find fascinating is that she wants to be a nurse and my understanding of nursing at the time is that it was quite militarized, perhaps like indentured work that Dolly’s mother would have done.
Phoebe: As you said, she has a lot of courage. I mean, it's really courageous to even think that she could get those type of opportunities. I mean for an Aboriginal person in 1950s, they didn't even work anywhere other than on the farm or in a house … I don't even know what you would call it. A servant? So there's no way in the world that she’d be able to get that career until probably another twenty years.
Judith: Especially living in the circumstances that she does?
Phoebe: Oh, yeah. I guess there might have been different kinds of opportunities in other places in Australia … other people would be more open or more closed, it just depends on the community that you were living in.
Judith: And the love story, a surprising love story, is aspirational too?
Phoebe: Yeah, I mean is she's totally … He's someone different and he's interested in her and she lives in this small community and she sees the guys that are there! She talks about how they're all related and everything. And then, here comes this new person; this kind of new opportunity. I don't necessarily think that she likes him at first. I think she likes the fact that he's interested in her and he is intrigued by who she is and wants to know about her. I think she actually genuinely does love him at the end.
Judith: He has aspirations, too, doesn’t he?
Phoebe: I mean, that first scene in which he goes … I want to take you away. Ahhh! If someone said that to me, and I didn’t know them, in the way that Dolly and Errol are new to each other, I'd be … what the hell! It’s such a far-fetched thing in today's society to ask somebody that after knowing them for what… a month, two months? But I guess, back then, it's kind of like that; the war was like that and everyone was living in the moment, in the present.
Judith: And the attraction of the city as well?
Phoebe: Even though it's this opportunity that allows her to think about the world in a way that she hasn't been able to think about it, living on the flats, I think that it does give her a route into being really strong about who she is and where she comes from. Because Errol says … you want something better. But she says … actually, I love this life that I'm living. I love it because of my nan and my mum! In that sense, she really gets to understand that part of herself. I think, also, that it does still interest her, knowing something that's different; it’s all about learning for her.
Judith: What's her relationship like with her grandmother and mother?
Phoebe: Oh, she loves Nan Dear. She absolutely loves her. Nan is more her mum than Gladys is. I see that even now, in family members, where the grandchild has a closer connection to the grandmother than mother.
Judith: Storytelling is important isn’t it? Nan's a great raconteur.
Phoebe: She is, yeah. Dolly learns from her mother but mostly from her grandmother and she learns different parts about herself from these two people. She learns her history and her indigeneity from her grandmother. Gladys teaches her that type of thing, too, but she also teaches Dolly that she can go further than the various restraints that are on her because of her race; she teaches her that she can go get that job as a nurse. She can go work in the hospital. She can go work at the shop and be the cash register lady.
Dolly suggests that there's a summer job going at a shop in the town and Gladys is … yes, you can go do that; it would be great opportunity! Whereas Nan is … no, you’ll be working at the Blue Moon on the farm because that's the only job that we are able to get. I think she is really trying to make Dolly see the realities of the world in which she lives, but is not able to see the change; the change that’s coming.
Judith: Does Dolly feel that’s putting her down? She’s obviously smart, and she's finished her schooling.
Phoebe: Definitely. I think she does feel put down but I also feel it's, kind of like, a checking in. OK, so that’s what the reality is!
Judith: Stage manager is calling, so one last question. I'm asking everyone; the Eternity is such a venerable and historic building and, now, being a theatre which we all know absorbs experiences, what will this production leave in there?
Phoebe: I actually, last year, I did a reading there of a play called Jelbu Meri that I wrote with my friend Wendy Mocke and I thought the space was so beautiful. I feel like it just allows stories to be heard; I really like it and I feel the energy of it. And in terms of this play, I know you're going to feel these women after we go. They are still going to be there!
Photo Credit: Robert Catto
A series of sit-downs with the director and cast of Rainbow’s End.
Rainbow’s End is currently bumping into Eternity Theatre. In a relaxed and laugh filled interview, I spoke with Dalara Williams about her character, Gladys. Gladys is the daughter of Nan and mother of Dolly and the family live together in a rundown shack on the Goulburn River flat. Set against the backdrop of the Queen’s visit in 1954, acclaimed playwright, Jane Harrison (Stolen) tells an uplifting story about the struggle for community acceptance during the Menzies era.
Dalara is a Wiradjuri and Gumbaynggirr woman from Western and the Mid-north coast of NSW.
Judith: The arc of this character is considerable, how difficult is that to negotiate?
Dalara: It's actually about finding trigger points of events that tick her over … like slowly and slowly becoming aware of her voice. And understanding the ability that she can change things herself; can take things into her own hands.
That was one of the things we worked on… this is she at the beginning and these are the little things that start awakening her, pretty much, to this other world of possibilities.
Judith: I saw an interesting quote that said she goes from “The Queen” to “Mrs. Windsor”. Does that in some way sum up how her mindset travels?
Dalara: Oh, yeah. It's understanding that, yes, there’s titles, but then again, they are just people like you and me. Mrs. Windsor … wife. Mother as well. And so as I say … from a mother to a mother, you should have some understanding of what it's like for us all. Can you understand that our struggles are real? Can you have some sympathy or empathy towards us?
Judith: And how does she get on with her own mother? It’s a pretty fraught relationship, I think.
Dalara: (Laughs) Yeah! Throughout it! There's a lot of, like, nipping at each other. I think that's the word. I'm sure that we all have done that with our own mother. Your mother wants the best for you, but is just not understanding how to communicate that. There is a sense of my mother in this trying to protect me but not understanding - that’s thing that's doing the damage. Trying to shelter children from the hurt, all the pain, but if we're not exposed to that we won't learn or we won't grow from that and actually learn to experience things on our own.
I had a friend and she said to her daughter that she did have to experience heartbreak... I can't protect you from that. No, but once you experience heartbreak, then you can grow and you have more understanding of your feelings. It inspires resilience.
I think that's what Gladys does at first - listening to her mother and then going… I don't have to play this part of perfect daughter to you. It's now time to be my own person and she really does come into her own.
Judith: If that’s her model for parenting, what does she feel for her daughter?
Dalara: I think it did have a lot of effect on her daughter because she is a hard worker but she does … She does think about herself more so than her daughter. And that's why her daughter and her mother have such a very close bond. This is very relevant in a lot of Indigenous communities where the grandparent and the grandchild are very close. And that's so relevant in this relationship where the mother just goes off and does her own things and the kid and the grandmother bond from that.
Judith: So there must be a lot of this story that speaks to you, even if it is set in 1953 and it's written quite a few years ago.
Dalara: Yeah, especially the final speech that I deliver is very relevant. I think it was the second time on the floor, I got really emotional because the topics at hand are still happening today. It mentions things about housing and that's still an issue across all of Australia in Aboriginal housing or communities. It talks about health! It also talks about assimilation and going … why do we have to? We’re not you. We are a separate culture and community and with a separate learning. And that comes up and it’s also a big thing to hit me… education. That we should go to university; our peak shouldn’t just be high school but further education.
It actually says that, not just for us, but for white people as well … they should be educated about us. We still don't have that really taught in the school curriculum about the true Indigenous history. We've had all that outburst about the closing of Uluru to climbing because they are still not understanding our ways or learning our ways and how we live. It's not just for tourists to climb it. It's not an amusement park, it is something deeper than that.
Judith: We can’t do spoilers but Gladys does something that proves she knows about the need for education.
Dalara: Yeah, I can’t give that away but she actually understands that knowledge or education is the power! And that's what she pushes for. Even though she doesn't have those skills to read or write, she just understands that these are the power and she does come into her own going… you know what? I don't need somebody else to do it for me. I should do it for myself.
Judith: The Gladys character puts across a lot of the concepts, doesn’t she? The situation of not having citizenship, that's in her words, isn't it?
Dalara: Yeah, it comes up! Especially, where that conversation is set. It comes up about us not being citizens, but the reality doesn't come into play for over a decade.
Judith: It’s living history that. The first time I ever voted was in that referendum.
Dalara: It was big; I think was like 90 point something Yes votes. That was 1967 and this play is set in 1953. So it's a long journey to go but that conversation is starting where this play is.
Judith: I've got one last question, I'm asking everyone. The Eternity is such a venerable and historic building and, now, being a theatre which we all know absorbs experiences, what will this production leave in there?
Dalara: I think all plays leave something but there is something so special about Indigenous plays that there is this real spirit that does linger afterwards and especially the topics that are at hand with this one. I really hope it affects just everybody that walks in and then out of that building.
Photo Credit: Robert Catto
A series of sit-downs with the director and cast of Rainbow’s End.
In association with Moogahlin Performing Arts, Darlinghurst Theatre Company will produce Jane Harrison's 2012 Drover Award-winning Rainbow’s End - an inspiring story of hope and resilience, from Australia's First Peoples - on Gadigal land.
Three generations of the Dear family live together in a rundown shack on the Goulburn River flats. Gladys yearns for a better life and a decent job. Her teenage daughter Dolly has dreams of becoming a nurse, while her resilient grandmother, Nan Dear, is resistant to change. Dolly falls for Errol, a travelling salesman, whose offer of another world sees their lives take an unexpected turn.
Lily Shearer plays Nan and what a sheer pleasure for me to spend some time in her company.
Lily is a proud citizen of the Murrwarri Republic & Ngemba Nation (north-west NSW/south-east QLD)- a woman with 30+ years’ experience in First Peoples Cultural Development, Arts Management and in theatre and performance making. Lily is also a co-founder Moogahlin Performing Arts.
Judith: So, Nan is quite a character? She's funny and feisty.
Lily: She is quite a character and she's funny and feisty and very, very stern. You look at those old women from that era … well, my mom would have been 10 in 1954. And I suppose it's given me an insight into what that world was like back then. Yeah very hard. They were surviving… missions had just been disbanded in 1939 and then they were moved to the fringes of the towns.
Brewarrina, where I was born and raised, had the biggest mission station in New South Wales. And there was despair when they moved them off to the edges of town in, what we now know as, Bush Queen Village named after Auntie Essie Coffey. You know, we think we have it tough!
Judith: Nan was at Cummeragunja before this?
Lily: That was her home. Not many people in those times got to stay on their home lands, they were mostly moved to missions away and mixed with other speaking-dialects of blackfellas, but she was lucky enough to stay on her homelands of Cummeragunja. But it would have been hard.
Judith: Is that part of what makes her so tough on her daughter and granddaughter?
Lily: Absolutely … what she's endured! She doesn't want that for them and she's already seen a daughter go through it - been indentured and made to go to work for local property owners. And she doesn't want that, you know, she's in fear of that for her granddaughter. And being the matriarch, and most of us on the East Coast are matriarchs and come from matriarchal societies, she’s really staunch and adamant.
And, sometimes, I feel like she could be a bit stronger but I suppose at that time you couldn't speak out and my interpretation of her is probably a little bit different because we're in the 21st century … me wanting to make her a little bit harder. I hope I do her justice … yeah.
Judith: Jane Harrison wrote that she wanted this play to acknowledge the women who worked to keep their families together and that's really Nan, isn't it?
Lily: Oh absolutely. Nan’s strived really hard to do that and I suppose wherever Papa Dear is off preaching, she had to be the backbone of the family. Well, she would have been anyway regardless of whether Papa Dear was there or not, but you know, he was off preaching the good word of the Lord. He's not in the play really but, for me, I equate him to William Ferguson and whilst he was, inverted commas, “off preaching the good word of the Lord” he was actually really rallying the people on the missions. Telling them that they had rights.
That’s a little back story of what was happening at the time and not a lot of people know that William Ferguson did that. I know when he was up at Brewarrina, the mission manager kicked him off and said… you're not here to rouse my rabble. So he went to the other side of the Barwon River and started singing out and telling people about their rights as Aboriginal people and people were swimming across the river, just to sit and listen to him. It's so subversive.
Judith: Fascinating! I expect for a person of your age, it must be part of your storytelling lineage to be involved in the show.
Lily: Absolutely. Absolutely and you know Jane Harrison is a Murrwarri woman as well. I've often said, in rehearsal and out of rehearsal, that I think this is the next chapter of Stolen, Jane’s first play. I did Stolen for Riverside Theatre probably about three years ago.
Judith: I read a quote from you about the importance of reclaiming women’s stories so this must be part of your songline?
Lily: Yeah, absolutely. Women, you know, we carry our dilly bags - it’s not just food. We collected 80% of the dietary intake BC, Before Cook, and we continue to do that. Most women continue to be the gatherers for the family, After Cook. And it's not just black women; it's all women.
Those dilly bags not only have our food that nourishes us physically but it has our stories that nurture us emotionally, intellectually and spiritually … so those dilly bags are really important.
Judith: That does rather lead me to my last question and I’m asking everybody this. The Eternity is such a venerable and historic building and, now, being a theatre which we all know absorbs experiences, what will this production leave in there?
Lily: I'm a strong believer that our spirits still walk with us and I'm totally guided by the land and the Ancestors - when I'm living and when I'm working. Culture is life; life is culture. I think it'll leave a really gentle spirit and energy, a change and an openness. Because, although this is a 1954 story and we sometimes feel in telling these old stories that we are re- traumatizing ourselves, we're not re-traumatizing ourselves. It’s intergenerational trauma, it's still happening. So I think the spirits will wake that up in other people that use the Eternity Theatre … who come in after us.
Hopefully we will have a really good smoking for any bad, negative energy that's there before us and hopefully they don't smoke it again after that … so we don’t lose the energy of our ancestors.
Photo Credit: Robert Catto
A series of sit-downs with the director and cast of Rainbow’s End
In association with Moogahlin Performing Arts, Darlinghurst Theatre Company will produce Jane Harrison's 2012 Drover Award-winning Rainbow’s End - an inspiring story of hope and resilience, from Australia's First Peoples - on Gadigal land.
Three generations of the Dear family live together in a rundown shack on the Goulburn River flats. Gladys yearns for a better life and a decent job. Her teenage daughter Dolly has dreams of becoming a nurse, while her resilient grandmother, Nan Dear, is resistant to change. Dolly falls for Errol, a travelling salesman, whose offer of another world sees their lives take an unexpected turn.
For the latest Sit-Down-Sessions I had some immersion time with this warm and generous cast in a wonderful series of interviews. Beginning with the Director Liza-Mare Syron.
Liza-Mare is a Birripi woman whose custodial lands are situated on the mid-north coast of NSW. Liza-Mare is a director, actor, teacher, dramaturge and academic. She is a founding member of Moogahlin Performing Arts.
Judith: How did this collaboration between Moogahlin and Darlinghust Theatre Company come about?
Liza-Mare: Well, very early on Fred Copperwaite, who’s one of the founders of Moogahlin, he was putting on a show called Lessons in Flight and he did that at Darlinghurst. And it was at that time that we were having conversations about starting a company. So Darlinghurst had worked with Fred and, you know, 12 years later they came back and said … we're doing this show, do you want to do a co-production? Which is fantastic because having creative leadership of an indigenous story is very important.
Judith: And what drew you to this particular play.
Liza-Mare: They came to us with it and when we talked about it we said … well, it's a woman's story so we should get a woman director. And we decided that that would be me.
Judith: And your vision for it?
Liza-Mare: It's a classic, so I have approached it like a classic… you know, in that kind of Jack Davis canon type of work. We've just taken it as a snapshot of that time and the circumstances under which Indigenous people were living and recreating that story.
Judith: So you've left in the references and terms which are difficult to hear for a modern audience?
Liza-Mare: Yeah, of course. I mean, I think we should always present the language of the time for what it was. And not be embarrassed about it. Because it is what it is and people did say that so it’s no use covering it up.
Judith: It's true. And the wide stage of the Eternity, how does that affect the storytelling? It’s set in a shack?
Liza-Mare: There is a shack in the script. She calls it a humpy. Yeah, so we've had a few conversations about what is a shack and what is a humpy because there's actually two rooms. So it would have been a lean-to; it would have been makeshift. Melanie Liertz, who's the set designer, has made just a big piece that sits there; that looks like a lean-to. From then it moves to become a house because they get moved to Rumbalara Housing Estate.
Judith: Apart from ‘belonging’ which this play is listed under as an HSC text, there are so many themes which swirl around it aren’t there?
Liza-Mare: It's just about telling the story of that time. I think it's about intergenerational trauma… and about healing. The first part is about how these women deal with intergenerational trauma and then the second half, after a very tragic point, is about healing and how these women decide to deal with trauma.
Judith: It's also quite funny in places though?
Liza-Mare: Yeah, Nan especially … the old girl!
Juidth: And the growth of the second generation, how the second generation changes?
Liza-Mare: Yeah. Well, that's where the conflict really is in the play. It’s around how, because of Nan’s experience of being a domestic and then the experience of having her daughter taken away and put into …servitude, I guess … she's constantly trying to stop her daughter from having aspirations. Because she's just trying to protect them, but, of course, it always comes out the wrong way and it always feels like she's trying to stop them from moving on from their circumstances.
And it was around the time that there are a lot of Aboriginal aspirations with William Cooper and the walk-off of Cummeragunja and it was a time of rising for Aboriginal politics in Australia. It was a very probably inspiring time.
Judith: Nan was at Cummeragunja before the events of the play?
Liza-Mare: Well, during the war money ran out so they couldn't keep the missions open and they couldn't keep the rations up. And so it was also about living under the control, there's a speech at the end that Gladys gives, and there throughout the play as well, and it's about the experience of living under the control of landlords and mission managers. And they are prepared to live in a very precarious place just so they can have some sovereignty and make some decisions about what they do with their lives.
Judith: And there’s a love story, tell us about that.
Liza-Mare: (laughing) Yeah, it's an interesting one. I mean, the character of Errol is not even a first-generation Australian but a war refugee, with his family, from Germany. And he doesn't seem to have the same historical prejudice that most Australians have because, where he comes from, it would have been more cosmopolitan. There would have been a lot more interplay with different cultures. So he doesn't have the same prejudices as the people of the day.
Judith: And his aspirations are for city living aren't they?
Liza-Mare: Yeah. Let me take you away from here!
Judith: Last question and I’m asking everybody this. The Eternity is such a venerable and historic building and, now, being a theatre which we all know absorbs experiences, what will this production leave in there?
Liza-Mare: Well, every day we do an Acknowledgement of Country, it's part of our process for telling the story on this country. And yeah, it's a building and it’s bricks and mortar but we're still on Country; the Ancestors’ footprints are still underneath this concrete so we acknowledge that every day before we start so that we understand what our role is in telling this story.
Photo Credit: Robert Catto
A chat with this transplanted country girl.
The Sydney Cabaret Competition was a wonderful couple of weeks for me as I got to see some terrific acts that haven’t crossed my path before. One of these is Nyssa Milligan who has a cow based show complete with a mooing chorus from the audience and straw hat. When Nyssa approached me to list her shows on Reviews by Judith, I was interested to know more. So on a chilly day, with an expensive but delicious coffee, we headed to Camperdown Park for some sun and a chat.
Judith: For those who haven’t seen your show, the country town beginnings is a true story?
Nyssa: Yes. Absolutely true. It was a dairy farm on the Cundle Plains.
Judith: I go through Cundle Cundle to get to my family in Coffs
Nyssa: Yes Cundle Cundle near Cundle Flat … most people know where Taree is so just north of that.
Judith: And an operatic mother?
Nyssa: Absolutely true … my mum was a classical music lover. I grew up on Kathleen Ferrier records through the house. My siblings and I all learnt classically so I always loved performing and music and then went to Sydney Con on scholarship to study classical voice.
Then I arrived in the city. (laughs) And suddenly, I was discovering all these other genres and performing styles that I'd never really had exposure to growing up, and just fell in love with jazz and pop and music theatre ... and so that kind of musical journey comes out in my show because definitely my life was 100% classical in focus growing up and then once in the city… I want to sing this stuff!!!!
Judith: So where does your voice sit with that range of interests?
Nyssa: I think having fabulous vocal coaches, I definitely couldn't do it alone. But I think if you’ve got the determination, if you hear a genre or style and you immerse yourself in it, you can pick things up.
Judith: Especially dropping down for jazz?
Nyssa: Dropping down, yes, but also the smoky, breathy quality of jazz is very different to, obviously, an operatic sound. I played around with it a lot during my uni days and then once I left the Con, I started seeing vocal coaches. And as the show's been created I have really tried to perfect those different changes to different genres.
Judith: And what about the writing? I mean, you've obviously got a really nice, warm little cabaret but is the writing organic to the creation?
Nyssa: It feels organic. It's the first show I’ve written but I come from very much a culture of, you know, storytelling. Something like Dad coming home from milking the cows, having a beer and telling stories. Yes, there's always that, so it felt like having a yarn with the audience.
It is the first I written but I really enjoyed it. And because this show is personal, is my story, there’s, kind of, that excitement in wanting to share. But again, I've got help. There’s some people who have seen 110 drafts of this show!
Judith: And what about the move to the city? That must have been a big move for you?
Nyssa: It was a big move! I look back on it now and go… Oh my Gosh.
Yeah and I didn't do it smoothly … like the day after my last HSC exam I got on that country XPT and I moved to Sydney. And I moved into a share house with other musicians who I didn't know … a house full of strangers. So I definitely did it… I jumped off the cliff and grew wings on the way down.
And I realized that this is a perfect story to tell … I didn't do things gradually; I jumped in. There's a segment in the show where it's my first night out, which is a very much a true story, with my new housemates going out to karaoke … a classical singer who has never sung anything else ending up in a karaoke bar in Kings Cross. There’s some fabulous failures when I first moved to Sydney, I can tell you.
Judith: Did you have it in your mind all the way through your schooling? That's what you do?
Nyssa: Yeah, absolutely. So I always just loved performing and I had always had the dream of singing. But there's that realization that the dream that you have an isolated environment, in a paddock, standing on hay bales, performing to cows, imagining what the stage is going to be like, versus realizing … Oh this isn't exactly what I dreamed it would be in my Dad’s paddock.
But I'd always had that dream. And even though it wasn't quite what I expected, I still can’t imagine doing anything else.
Judith: I imagine outdoors is a bit different acoustically to bathroom where the rest of us practise.
Nyssa: True and I think the greatest thing about the farm is you don’t have neighbours telling me to shut up at any point. One of the biggest things moving to the city is realizing that sound can annoy neighbours … wasn’t used to that growing up on a dairy farm.
Judith: You mention, I think it’s … Sound of Music. Do you have other songs from the Broadway canon that you like to sing?
Nyssa: In the show I do a homage, if you like, to Sutton Foster because when I had moved to Sydney I was introduced to her work and oh my goodness this lady can do it all. And so I really love it all. I love the classics. I love the modern musical. Yeah, all of it.
So, in my show, I go from the Sound of music to Thoroughly Modern Millie there’s even a bit of Frozen in there. It's got a range of musicals.
Judith: And home-town support?
Nyssa: I did kind of preview … run … of the show in January; I thought it was time to put it in front of everybody. I found that I was really nervous about that, because some of my family travelled to Sydney to see it, which I wasn't expecting. It was my father and some of my uncles and these are men who have lived country! The Milligan's have been part of Cundletown as far back as you could go.
So I was bringing a story to the stage, in which was talking about living in the country, and in the audience was the people who live it. So I was really nervous about that, because I do poke fun at that a bit. I talked about, you know, the bogan language and how I think it is a language … because if you go to a tractor shop in Wingham and you can’t speak Bogan you have no idea what’s going on.
So it’s tongue in check, respectful but fun. But I was really nervous about how it was going to go down but I forgotten how much good humour there is in country people. They love a good laugh and it just went down really well, which was amazing. And I had some friends I've gone to primary school with, who I hadn't seen in 10 years, come as well. And just being able to create a show that people could relate to I found really encouraging, because I have never seen a show about someone who came from my area and had experiences in the city. So I can imagine what it would have been like to be sitting in an audience being able to say, yeah, that was my experience, too.
So really I was really encouraged by that in January because I wanted to try to bring the show to life in the best way I could.
Judith: What's your biggest challenge in performing, do you get nervous?
Nyssa: I do get nervous... but I kind of love it. I'm more worried when I don't get nervous because it's an adrenaline kick. I have realized now, memory wise, because an hour on stage, you have to cover a lot of content. And so I realized now there's a rule that I'm going to forget one thing every show. It’s going to happen, no matter how well you prepare, you're going to have one moment during a show where your brain goes, crap what’s next. So that's the thing, but I've kind of embraced it now. Because it's just me on stage, you can play with those moments.
And the great thing about cabaret audiences is that they're there to have a really good time. It's not like a classical audience that's going to come and say … it’s not like the 1971 recording; I don't agree with that interpretation. It's not that kind of an audience - they're there to relate to you. And people love seeing your flaws on stage! (laughing)
Nyssa Milligan’s cabaret is Times Are Hard for Dreamers and you can see her at the Newsagency on August 22 and 28 (Details here and we have a giveaway running here) and as part of the Sydney Fringe September 25, tickets here.
A chat after her ‘Lady Liberty’ cabaret.
When Lucienne Weber recently performed her show Lady Liberty in Sydney I had the chance to catch up with her afterwards.
When plans for marrying an American, to secure a Green Card, derail, Lucienne is left in the city which never sleeps to come up with another option... Or three, fast! Lady Liberty: A tale of three men, one city and an audition. Featuring songs from Broadway musicals: Wicked; A Chorus Line; Kinky Boots; Songs For A New World and more…
She was joined on stage by Robert Bertram on keys, James Power trumpet, Craig Herbert bass guitar and Stephen Clifford on drums and I began by asking how she put the band together for that night.
Lucienne: (Laughing) I worked a lot of overtime to put that together. I could have just gone piano but I just really wanted more oomph behind me to give it that full bodied sound. Yeah, I guess, maybe as much out of self-indulgence as anything else just really wanting that amazing backing behind me.
When I did a show a few years ago I had piano, trumpet and myself, and that was nice but this time I wanted a bit more guts.
Judith: And this is a true story?
Lucienne: It was actually … I have this uncanny knack of attracting outlandish scenarios in my everyday life. So they come in handy when I'm wanting to throw something like this together. It was genuinely a trip to New York that sort of went very pear shaped. At the time it was horrendous until a little light bulb moment happened.
Mmmmm … this is actually material!
Judith: And you write all the non-song elements?
Lucienne: Yes I do. All the anecdotes dotted throughout and some of the songs I change lyrics to be appropriate to my storyline. For example, I did a bit of a mashup to represent what it was like auditioning for a Broadway show. So I, sort of, combined that roller coaster of emotions that I experienced firsthand into one medley.
And I worked on that in New York with a Musical Director I met when I was doing a course at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. So I went back over and we workshopped it and it works really well with a bit of Jason Robert Brown and a bit of Marvin Hamlisch … a bit of a mixture there.
Judith: Do you have a preference for what you like to sing?
Lucienne: It's really interesting, actually. So if you'd asked me several years ago I would have said legit musical theatre … Rodgers and Hammerstein, Phantom of the Opera! I was very classically trained. And belting? I never thought I would have been able to belt but my eyes have been open to that over the last few years. So now my repertoire is totally different.
But in terms of music, I love every genre except death metal! Within the realms of singing, I love jazz, I love contemporary musical theatre, I love jazz standards, etc, etc. that the whole gamut really. Music is soul food is what I feel.
Judith: So when you put on a show, how do you take out stuff?
Lucienne: Oh, my goodness, that was a little bit tricky. So what I found is … Is this serving my storyline or my theme? Or is it just in there because I like it?
A really important thing I learned, once again, from the Musical Director I worked with in New York was the concept of having a sewing thread going throughout the whole show. Can you genuinely keep that thing running on one thread throughout the whole show? If you can’t then the song is probably not relevant. So I was conscious continually of drawing back to my theme of three men in one city and an audition. So if it didn’t link back to those things, or how I felt within those circumstances, then I had to cut it.
So the song list was originally a lot more but it did cull, but as it was, it ended up being an hour and a half cabaret where I had originally thought, an hour tops.
Judith: So will you do this one for a while or other there other ones brewing?
Lucienne: I'd really like to. It’s fun. And in terms of emotional investment, time investment, etc, etc. I have that feeling that it has longevity. So taking it to cabaret festivals moving forward. I’ve been very blessed with this show and the people I have worked with to get amazing arrangements. So those need to be demonstrated again, they need to be taken out and shown again, you know.
We are the Himalayas
With Director Richard Cornally after the final preview.
Photo credit: David Hooley
We are the Himalayas has intrigued me since I first heard about it. A woman reclaimed from history - Russian history of close to living memory. Might be a bit worthy but maybe still worth a watch. I was about to get a lesson in not prejudging!
The matter concerns Anna Larina, known as the wife of one the architects of the Russian Revolution, Nikolai Bukharin. He fell out of favour and was purged while she was left to imprisonment and isolation, even after Stalin fell when she was still seen as an enemy by inference.
Having inveigled an invite to the final preview of the Brave New Word production I was beyond impressed at what I saw. At moments there was such electricity in this small space that used to be the Blood Moon Theatre, now the Fringe Hub. There was menace and fear evoked with breath-drawing immersion and there were lightnesses of touch from laugh out loud to head shaking irony.
Written by Mark Langham and directed by Richard Cornally, the show places women at the centre of the story. They are capable of agency despite the power of the forces against them without, however, the men being sidelined to lovers or bullies. The dialogue crackles with snake/tail convolution and the audience is challenged to keep up with the Orwellian, accusatory requirements of the regime. The content and structure is erudite and sophisticated, the characters are detailed and the horror implied with force of performance from this ensemble of six. (Charlotte Chimes, Ben Matthews, Steve Corner, Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou, Chelsea Klein, James Gordon)
As the actors changed after this final preview I had some sit-down time with the director before be rushed off to give notes.
Judith: We’ve just walked outside and I’m still a bit shaken … but what I think I enjoyed most was the balance between the light and the dark. Is that in the text, or did it come out in the rehearsal room,
Richard: I think a bit of both but it's really very much in Mark’s style. So, Mark’s English and one of the things that we worked on a lot in the rehearsal process is bringing out that wry kind of sense of humour… it’s a very English thing.
And also, I had a lot of, I guess, consciousness or respect to the almost-gallows humour that the Russians have about this period of history. I grew up surrounded by Hungarians, and they’re not Russian, but they did endure a lot under communism. And my step grandfather was a prisoner of war in the Russian gulags and work camps. And it was either not talked about,or coped with by a bit of dark humour. So I really wanted to pay respect to that, and try and find that balance within performances. So very much in the text, but very much something I was conscious of as well.
Judith: The performances are universally excellent, did you open cast?
Richard: Yes, we had auditions for every role. I was so blessed to find this cast. I think it's tough for the young female actresses, because we must have seen somewhere between 20 and 30. And then I had to pick three! So many talented actresses and I was just blessed that we got this lovely diversity within the three female roles. And then I was equally blessed, that I got such strong actors for male roles as well.
Judith: Ben Matthews as Nikolai is involved in almost all the comedy and he has such a command over it.
Richard: That was something that he put a lot of work into. And in fact, we spent a lot of time early in the rehearsal process, building the structure of the comedy, so that we could then bury it. And that was the order that we did it in, because the comedy is so specific. And we probably spent more time building that; so actually, we're getting quite close to bumping in and it was still a little too funny. And only about a week ago, we went … all right now put that under the surface and play that for its stakes, for its drama. And I think the results are really great.
Judith: Ben has a funny scene on the phone, which he just nails, but Charlotte as Anna has equally long speeches which are incredibly moving and require pinpoint responses from the other two women prisoners. How much work does it take to get that right?
Richard: Oh, gosh! A lot! And I couldn't take credit for it. One of the things that I was really watching tonight was detail that Chelsea has put into the listening. She’s so quiet. Yeah, I wish I could take credit for that but, of course, during the rehearsal process, my focus was very much on building Anna’s detail. So all credit goes to Chelsea for that, she really did an amazing job at turning a character with very few lines into a very fully realized human being with a lot of detail and nuance.
Judith: The women are so terrific! The way the three women individually respond whenever that fucking door opens!
Richard: (Laughing) And that was really something … we found so many little pieces of magic this week. As we got into the space and we added the light and sound, and things that hadn't quite been feeling right, just clicked; yeah and just fell into place. And we had over- complicated some bits and once we had lights and sound there we realized, we could pare it back, and just let it be a visual thing. They were a lot of fun to find.
Judith: I found the soundscape very evocative. It's got the, you know, the wind through the Steppes, but it's also got the hammer on the sickle. Did you design it that way?
Richard: Yeah, that was something that we spoke about with Patrick, the sound designer, very early on. (Patrick Howard) I like to make theatre that people who don't like going to the theatre will want to come back and see. So I'm very influenced by cinema.
And for me, the two films that were in my mind, right from the start when I spoke to Patrick was the John Hurt 1984 and David Lynch's Lost Highway. Both of which use diegetic sound and ambient sound to create a sense of climate and space. So all of the scenes in 1984 that are in very public and exposed space, have that kind of chill wind in the background and a slight echo. So you're always feeling like somebody could be watching. And in Lost Highway, David Lynch uses that dietetic drone to really, kind of, steer the emotional experience. So that's something that we really wanted to layer in.
Judith: I actually wrote down about the filmic aspects of both the text and production. I loved Anna’s context that normally you would read on the rolling screen. She stands there and she says… this happened to me. Then off I go to google!
Richard: Oh wonderful! I'm so glad. That's one of the things that I wanted for the listeners, some curiosity in the audience about this time in history, and its people.
Omar and Dawn
Director Dino Dimitriadis with Maggie Blinco who plays Dawn and Lex Marinos playing her brother, Darren.
Following on from our sit-down with Antony Makhlouf and Mansoor Noor who are currently rehearsing for of James Elazzi’s Omar and Dawn, I stole some rehearsal room time with the director Dino Dimitriadis and Maggie Blinco who plays Dawn and Lex Marinos playing her brother, Darren.
Judith: Dino, there's a whole range of themes in this play … who do you think is going to be drawn to it?
Dino: I often say when people are marketing their shows … you're delusional to think that your show is for everyone. But, having said that, this is probably a work that is incredibly broad in its audience appeal.
This is the 10th year of Apocalypse, and so I'm very selective about what work I do and put time into, but the thing that that excites me about this piece is that I have never seen any of this. No scene of this play have I ever seen on stage. In queer work, I haven't seen a relationship like this. I haven't seen age explored on a stage in the way it is in this play. I haven't seen a brother/sister older relationship represented. And so I actually think there is a very broad audience for this piece.
Maggie: The story isn't just about ethnic, gay boys being thrown out. It's about four people all wanting something very badly and searching for it through each other. And whether they get it or not is what the play’s about.
Dino: Yes, this play is about a lot of things. It's definitely about aging, something I don't think that's being addressed on our stages.
Judith: Moving on to the elder citizens of the play, Lex how did you get attached to the project.
Lex: Dino asked me!
Judith: Yes, he’s like that.
Lex: We did a reading last year, and it was wonderful but it’s advanced a lot since then.
Maggie: Some bits completely changed.
Lex: That first draft that we did, there was already clearly a very powerful play. So that's what interests me.
Judith: And what is your character feeling towards Omar when he first meets him?
Lex: Not wonderful, I think. It's a chore that he's doing for his sister who is taking in this boy, and thinks he might be useful as a mechanic. And so for her sake I take him in, but we struggle. But we eventually come to … instead of me teaching him he teaches me about things going on in my life that I need to get sorted out. He talks about honesty and that's significant to me because I need to be honest about things I have been avoiding for some time.
Judith: So Maggie, how did you become attached to the show.
Maggie: He asked me! (Laughter all round the table)
Judith: So Dino, it’s obvious you have a fairly wide range of people in your life?
Dino: I do! I see a lot of theatre and I do have a lot of people in my life and friends of all ages. I don't see age. So a lot of my friends are in all sorts of decades. And so I'm aware of who's around and I'm fairly bold with casting insofar as I don't just cast the same people. I look at the project and I go … who would be good for this?
Judith: Maggie, I looked at your sizzle reel. Please tell me you are going to wear something nice for this role! Us old women are always daggy!
Maggie: Yes, I became professional late and I've tended to play daggy old ladies ever since. I’m not daggy!
After Doubt I remember after I went up to this gentleman said … I'd like to work with you sometime. And here it is happening. But he has done something very special here; this play was written originally for a 60 year old and he’s persuaded lovely James Elazzi to turn her into an 80 year old.
Judith: And she's been doing it a while, how does she get through all the paperwork to become a foster carer?
Maggie: Her brother has to.
Dino: Darren is 69 which is the end of when you can legally adopt. And so the only way that she can do it is through him. The foster care system, sort of, turns a blind eye and they know … but legally that's how it can happen. He puts his name on the paperwork and she …
Maggie: I think we've assumed that the caseworkers know I do a reasonable job with these traumatized kids.
Judith: How long is Dawn been doing this?
Maggie: Oh a long time.
Dino: 15 years is referenced in the script.
Maggie: Yeah, 15 years … I say “15 years I’ve been taking in these kids.” And he'll probably be the last one.
Judith: Has his ethnicity got any relevance to Dawn?
Maggie: No, no. They are all just kids. Kids who need a home and a helping hand. She likes, she likes to help.
Dino: What is significant, though, is that this is the oldest one she's had. She normally takes them younger.
Judith: Dino, how did you start your preparation for the cultural side of it? The Lebanese elements?
Dino: Good question. I mean, I don't do a lot of preparation on my shows. I read, I read. Obviously I become very familiar with the work and I research anything I don't understand or don't know. But I tend to work best when I'm in the room, on the floor, because I work from instinct. But with something that is very culturally different… I have James. I worked on Lady Tabbouli with James and also, last year, we started a much bigger conversation about this culture. Also, I worked on a piece called The Girl, The Woman last year with Aanisa Vylet.
Lex: And Miriam.
Dino: Yes, I also did a development of James's play Miriam for the National Play Festival. So over two years ago, when Aanisa and I were first talking about working together, we started those bigger cultural conversations.
And so I met a lot of people and worked to immerse myself and understand that culture. But there are also a lot of parallels to Greek culture, which I understand very acutely. Also, I am a queer, ethnic person and so that element as well is something that I can tap into.
Judith: Lex, if Darren’s the younger sibling, what's that relationship between them like?
Lex: Well, fractious to an extent but she’s his only sibling; only family, really. He has got a daughter that he hasn’t seen in a long while. But he's also at point where he wants to change his life for whatever remaining time he has. And in order to do that he needs to move the responsibility for for Dawn somewhere else. So it's kind of trying to make a trade off with Dawn that this is the last one. But I want to stop. Stop; to get out of the house; to tidy up everything, so I can move on.
Judith: What are you thinking people will take away from your character, Maggie?
Maggie: A sense of her loneliness but she's very tough. She's a survivor.
Judith: Does that mean her approach with Omar is tough love?
Maggie: Absolutely. He likes to play the victim and neither she nor Darren will let him do it. I won’t let him get away with a thing. However, as the relationship grows, there are certain vulnerabilities which become obvious in everybody. And that's the value of the play, I think, it opens up all these beautiful moments … and ugly moments. It's the reality of the play, which is wonderful.
Lex: For me the appeal is about the universality of it … I think it’s for people who want to affirm the power of theatre … to be able to have the live experience of being part of the community and just affirm the power that theatre can generate. And that goes beyond race or age, or whatever, just theatre’s ability to tell the community stories.
Dino: There are big conversations around aging that we're not having in this country. Which is ironic that we're not having them in the theatre, given that our audiences are largely older. There are companies that will collapse when they die... that's their audience base. And they're making efforts to go … what work are we putting on our stages? But there's also a huge part of the population is not coming to the theatre because they're not being represented.
What is interesting about Dawn’s character is that it does look at loneliness; there's been a lot of studies released recently about how much loneliness is an issue for older people. And, and illness and the loss of faculty is actually a result of that often, not because of something else.
But what I love about Dawn is it's not there is not some feeble, weak, sick grandmother character on stage. I love that there is a portrait of a woman who is a survivor. She's a fighter. She's a strong. I don’t want to work on something where there's a ‘grandmother’ on stage -I just think we're past that and we seen those caricatures. And she’s not a vehicle for anyone, like sometimes women are in a lot of writing.
Omar and Dawn
Antony Makhlouf and Mansoor Noor who play Omar and Ahmed with Director Dino Dimitriadis.
“Fuck off outta my face!” The two young men are aggressive in language and stance but there’s no alpha behaviour here, no raised voices just supressed rage. I am in the rehearsal room for James Elazzi’s Omar and Dawn to have a sit-down with the director and cast. Dino Dimitriadis has been chatting with the stage manager about the purchase and acquiring of the winning fridge auditionee, apparently the auditioning of tables was a story also. That’s one of the things I love about Dino’s work, the detail.
Maggie Blinco, who plays Dawn, and Lex Marinos, who is undertaking the role of her mechanic brother, Darren, are off getting coffee and will slip in later but for the moment I am sitting mesmerised by Antony Makhlouf and Mansoor Noor who play Omar and Ahmed.
Judith: These two young men are obviously close friends, are they lovers?
Mansoor: That’s something that we have not decided and it will be interesting to see what the audience interprets it as.
Judith: What's happening between you now, with all the swearing and so forth, is a very visceral physicality.
Antony: Well, it's just running lines. So a pulled back version of what you'll actually be seeing on the night.
Judith: Right. So there will obviously be violence and aggression come into it because Ahmed is leading a very, very dangerous life. Is that right?
Mansoor: Absolutely! Because they’re such young boys who were forced to go out on their own, they're forced to have to protect themselves and be very dangerous in order to stay safe. So I think that aggression comes from protection … a sense of needing to defend themselves to stay alive.
Judith: And is that in him? Or has he learned it?
Mansoor: Absolutely learned it. He has absolutely learned through his circumstances which have made him become the person that he is today.
Judith: So Antony, what makes your character, Omar, so able to put away his circumstances and take this opportunity that's been offered to him … to be fostered with Dawn?
Antony: I think, underlying everything, he wants to become self-sufficient and independent. But in the meantime, in the life of the play, he can’t do that … he has to shelve that and just tolerate Dawn. I feel he's using her, in a sense, at the start. And then, yeah, that transforms over time.
Judith: So he's capable of that interaction? Has he had that in his past?
Antony: I think he's had that early on. And then the death of his mother and then how his father reacted to it… out of his control … it's vanished from his life.
Dino: And he's had very bad experiences in foster care. This is not the first time he’s been in ‘the system’. And this is really the last opportunity … he’s 17. So it's the last chance … it’s more than just giving him a roof over his head, it’s also a last attempt to give him a future. And one of the things that we've explored with him, and that James has embedded in the latest draft, is that it's quite intentional that he's been also placed with someone who has access to a mechanic … because that is something that they know to be true of Omar. That it was something he was wanting to do.
Judith: So he's interested in the mechanic side of it … is that a masculine thing?
Antony: In the story itself, his father was a mechanic. And also, he mentioned that his mother suggested he become a mechanic … and be set for life. And the fact that they have passed away really cements that idea for him. And it’s odd … I feel like he's got a really strong sense of family and honouring the family, which, I believe from experience, is somewhat intrinsic to Lebanese culture. On a bit of a tangent now, but like, trying to find that family unit, unconsciously, with the people that are in the play as well.
Dino: I think this play is as much about found family as it is about biological family. And I think that there's a lot of things in this play that are placed in tension … the cultures are placed in tension; the ages of the characters; the experiences they've had!
But I do think your point’s interesting, because I think this idea of masculinity, as well, is tested and contested in the play as well. There's a certain roughness that they've had to develop to be on the street and a veneer they must have in place. And James is very careful about when that veneer drops and when characters feel safe. I think that's really interesting.
As for them being lovers, there is that queer undertone to the piece and I think it's deliberately left intentional for us to think … what is this relationship here? But also the ability for certain queer communities to be visible is different. With the queer themes in this play, that why I'm excited by James's writing, because it's a queer voice that's different to the dominant, largely gay voices that we have. This is a voice looking at queerness through a different perspective; through a different cultural perspective.
Judith: Mansoor, your role in particular must have needed quite a bit of research?
Mansoor: I've looked at a lot online, and found interviews with people, homeless people in particular. I’m working on the opportunity to meet someone face to face. But there is certainly a weight that I think we need to grasp with characters like these that I don't think I can necessarily do without really talking to someone.
Judith: And how does Omar react when he meets Darren for the first time … older male etc
Antony: Omar’s just got preconceptions of racism, because there's a difference in age and stuff, but especially in terms of culture. I think, even with Dawn, like when they first meet, he has this preconceived notion that these are people worlds away. And I think there's this undertone in his head that there could potentially be racism. And I feel like he scans their behaviour and whenever something fits into that idea, (snaps fingers) he reacts to that, or uses that to, to … because he's such an aggressive character and I feel like, that's what fuels that. Yeah.
Judith: So he's got confirmation bias sort of built into him.
Antony: Yeah, I think he filters behaviour, unconsciously obviously, and then whatever fits that idea he has … he latches and attacks. Yep. So it’s not great when they first meet.
Judith: Mansoor and Antony, is it always volatile with you two? Like I saw when I was watching you before?
Mansoor: Certainly not … I think we see a range of colours between the two. And we're also thrown into the story very deep into their relationship. But as an audience, we're not really aware of that. I mean, these could be two men, you know, meeting up a couple of times. But as the story unfolds, we get to know the depth of their relationship and the things that they share, and the things that they disagree on. Yeah, I think it's a beautiful relationship that we can see between them. And it is volatile, and it is beautiful. And it is all those things. Yeah.
Antony: I think there's a difference in terms of choice. Because they are the same in terms of their circumstance, but um, the choices they make will make the difference. Like Omar wants to get off the streets and better himself. And Ahmed is, kind of, the opposite of that; he's accepted what his situation is, is happy stay where he is … to stay stagnant.
Dino: But what's interesting is that they’re both trapped. (General agreement)
Mansoor: Yeah. And then they both desire being with their families, and both have a deep love for their fathers, despite being kicked out.
Antony: I was going to say … your character’s homeless because he's been thrown out because of his sexual orientation.
Mansoor: Absolutely. Absolutely right. And lives in the hope that his father will change his mind and take him back.
Judith: And yet he's not taking any steps?
Mansoor: Well, the reason he chooses not to go into foster care is because he is hanging on to the hope that his father will accept him again. So rather than move on he's hoping that his father will change his mind and he makes steps to try and change his mind as well.
Antony: That's when I guess some of the heated scenes happen between the two of them.
Mansoor: The clashes!
Antony: Yeah, the clashes happen when Omar’s trying to say … like, wake up, essentially.
Judith: So what else has Omar been doing? What else is he been doing to try to improve matters for himself?
Antony: He's kind of self-destructive at the same time!
Maggie: He was thrown out of the last one.
Antony: He was thrown out of the last foster care for spray painting a room, destroying the property.
Dino: And he did that because …
Antony: He did that because he was called a dirty Arab! He has experienced racism before and that's what defines that viewpoint of this divide. He carries that on. But he's also willing to work with Darren and gain some skills… become self-sufficient. Yeah, become a mechanic.
And at the same time, he cares for Ahmed as well. I think the only reason why he goes back is not just to check on him but also to encourage him… look what I’m doing, you can do this.
Judith: Often in a play like this, there's a feeling that there should be some action from the audience at the end, even if it’s only an intellectual shift?
Mansoor: I think it's really important that people who are opposed to seeing characters like these come and see the show, to get a bit of insight into their lives, and their struggle. To identify that they're just human beings who want to be loved, like anyone else.
Antony: Yes but in addition to that, I think also representation. We did Lady Tabouli a couple of months ago, and the response to that was really strong. A lot of people coming up and saying, it's great seeing our story up there. I can relate to that. And it wasn't just gay Lebanese.
Dino: Whether we will change the world with the season, I don’t know. (Laughter) But I think the mere fact that it's on and they’re there… I think one of the strengths of this play is that it generates more questions than answers and I think that what I'm hoping people take from the play is all those questions.
All the loose ends are not tied up in this play and I actually think that's courageous playwriting. I think we can easily fall into a playwriting culture of television writing. But I think it's actually quite courageous to actually say, well, the audience is a complicit meaning-maker in the work. That we're not going to give you everything and then you could go and have dinner and forget about it. I hope that this play generates questions.
Judith: I am really looking forward to it! Last question. This theatre is two things. Firstly, it's traverse. And secondly, it is really close to the front row. So how are we feeling about that?
Mansoor: Excited, excited, excited. It's a really intimate story. And so I believe that we have to give really real performances and there's nothing like having close audience to help achieve that. (Lots of nodding and yeahs from the table.)
Coming up next is a sit-down-session with the Maggie, Lex and Dino. Omar and Dawn from Apocalypse Theatre Company and Green Door Theatre Company in association with Bakehouse Theatre Company plays Kings Cross Theatre July 12-27.
The Happy Prinve
The acclaimed work from Little Ones coming soon to Griffin.
Photo credit: Pia Johnson
Originally attracted to The Happy Prince for its queer storytelling, as I got to know more about the award-winning production from Little Ones Theatre my curiosity about the production deepened … Wilde, fairy stories, love between unequals? With my reputation for stealing artists’ lunch times intact, I had the chance to sit with director Stephen Nicolazzo and performers Catherine Davies and Janine Watson in a warm rehearsal room on a chilly day. We sat around the triangular markout lines and there was lots of laughter as their generous spirit brought the makeshift space alive .
Judith: Why this story?
Stephen: I think the reason why I'm obsessed with this story is because I think it's a beautiful meditation on compassion and a relationship between two people that is bred from empathy. And I think the other reason why I find it really interesting, is because I think that Wilde laces it with lots of subtexts that allude to his sexuality and his relationships with men. Particularly with The Swallow and The Prince and their final kiss. And I really wanted to make a work that honoured the form of fairytale but also brought his experience into the mix.
Judith: Is Wilde, or this story, part of your childhood?
Janine: It's part of my childhood. So many of Wilde’s stories were part of my childhood. There was this big book of children's stories that, I think my grandmother gave me, or maybe I just think that because the first line of it would say … this little girl putting her head on the chair of her old grandmother and would say “chair of my grandmother tell me a story”. And then the book was full of all these fairytales and a lot of them were Oscar Wilde … ones like The Selfish Giant, The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose. So from a young age, yeah.
Catherine: I didn't grow up with Oscar Wilde, and I feel like it took me until my early adulthood to actually realize how subversive he was as well. And once I kind of clued into that! It's kind of the same time I was clued into my own sexuality as well; I even called my dad's cat Oscar. … (new information obviously as everyone in the room oohed) Yeah went right in there!
So it's weird, I don't have this nostalgia associated with childhood but it certainly is like a kind of adult dreaming.
Judith: How long since you have done the show.
All: Two and a half years! (Lots of laughs here)
Judith: So does that mean that you've had practice your roller skating again? (Laughing continues)
Catherine: If I had known I might have picked them up earlier! … I learned the skates for the role so luckily I, kind of, made to my limitations. But it's nice because the beauty of Steven’s shows is that we get to explore physicality as well as text. And so it's always nice to have a physical challenge. I mean the roller skates are tough but so is playing a statue.
Judith: And sword holding?
Janine: Yes. That's right. The sword is part of it, an essential kind of prop but it's kind of just maintaining an integrity of posture and a type of stillness and fluidity. It's almost that we've got the opposite challenges don't we really?
Stephen: Yours is stillness and yours is flight.
Judith: And the dancing?
Janine: We’ve just been rehearsing that, it's a beautiful moment. There's a lot in the actual fairytale about a friendship that develops between these two and there’s an otherness to them, they're not of the human realm, they're outside of convention and they are sort of drawn to each other. And so the movement … I guess it's half text, half physicality in the show really. Isn't it? So the physicality is really where you see the energetic pull toward one another.
Stephen: Yeah, this dance between the two of them is where they finally get to physically engage. These two created the dance themselves, so they created a Waltz/Tango that was playful. And because it was a device around something we built as a group …
Janine: There was no plan for it was there … no blueprint.
Catherine: It’s so interesting… because, as we talked about, the problems with the physical vocabulary of both these characters is so different and it's this moment where they come together with a similar movement. That's because they are two outsiders, even though The Swallow is part of a flock. But yet is not the part of the pack, deviates from the pack, and then tries to catch up.
This is two lonely creatures and I think that speaks to us as theatre makers. It feels like Little Ones Theatre is made up of a bunch of misfits! (Laughter all round including from the designers and stage management on the production desk)
Judith: That is actually my next question … you work as a collective, how did you all come together?
Catherine: Stephen collected us! He’s like a bower bird!
Stephen: Exactly! They’re like my nest.
We just all met through various shows and seeing each other's work and also having a simpatico in ideas and lived experiences and that's what brought us all together. Like, when I first saw Cat on stage, I remember just being in awe of her physicality and her queerness and her otherness as a performer and just had to work with her. And the same for Janine - I saw you in a show called J.A.T.O which was this crazy, um, Croatian, like post-traumatic work, and I was like …who is this fiery creature. And then we developed friendships first and then worked together.
I think that's the nature of the entire collective. Like Katie (Katie Sfetkidis) and I have worked together for over 10 years and Dan (Daniel Nixon) as well, so it's a family and that's why we make works like this.
Catherine: Yeah, and Steven also allows us to explore things on stage that you aren't often afforded in shows. And so that's really exciting to explore where you think that theatre can go …
Stephen: … that's outside of traditional space.
Catherine: Yeah, exactly. And this work … it felt like the culmination of previous works and that somehow is distilled into the shortest work we’ve ever done.
Judith: It’s certainly an impressive body of work. This particular show has been very acknowledged by award nominations, is that important to developing the next work?
Stephen: I don't know if it's important to developing the next work, but there was something beautiful about this particular show being acknowledged because it was the most tender work we’d ever created. We'd been known for making camp travesties that were boisterous and huge and ridiculous. And this was first time that we softened and explored something more intimate. And to have that kind of response was really galvanizing and made me want to keep exploring that. It was nice to know that audiences and our peers respected the piece and it spoke to them.
Judith: Speaking of audiences, who is the audience for The Happy Prince?
Janine: It’s very diverse…
Stephen: It is, it is diverse.
Janine: Because there is something about all of the Little Ones’ shows … the germ of the work is often a classical source or an iconic source … it does have that appeal to see what Little Ones does with it and how Little Ones is honouring it whilst playing with it. I think that is why the audience is quite diverse, because classical text lovers would really enjoy this show. There's a lot of Wilde’s own text in it and then there's a lot of improvised text that we sort of …
Stephen: … are riffing on Wilde.
Janine: Yeah. Hoping to capture a bit of his humour. Yeah. And his passion.
Stephen: And I think, too, with the form … we're not, like, alienating. We use populist forms. We use broad comedy. We use beautiful imagery and burlesque and the kind of things that can be still entertaining, you know, so I think that's why it draws really interesting kinds of audience members.
We have a queer audience, of course. In Melbourne, especially, there is a wonderful trans community that support our work as well, because of the gender explorations. But then … I remember this incredible performance where we did Merciless Gods in a Melbourne and there were this couple in their eighties and I thought … oh God, they're going to want to walk out; they are going to despise this work; and they gave it a standing ovation at the end. And so there's really surprising people who come to our shows.
Judith: Do you think it is one for the lovers?
All: Yes. (a resounding yes and big smiles all round)
Stephen: Yes, because we are all Oscar Wilde lovers and this is a love song to him and we would never ever try to undo the beauty of his work… it’s absolutely honouring of him.
Judith: And what’s next?
Stephen: We're going to finish the trilogy because we did The Nightingale and the Rose as a follow-up to this piece and hopefully we'll get to do the third, which is optimistically going to be The Star-Child. It’s a fascinating fairytale because it's so dark, even darker than this, and violent.
And then I don't know … there’s always something in the works. I want to do another horror piece, really quite desperately! Yeah, something intense.
Cameron Daddo plays Da.
Rehearsal photos: Robert Catto
Once from Darlinghurst Theatre Company opens soon and in the last of this series of Sit-Down-Sessions with the cast and creatives, I had some time with Cameron Daddo. This warm and engaging, multi-talented artist needs no introduction but I did have difficulties when researching his character.
Judith: I had the most enormous trouble trying to find out about Da. Can you fill us in a bit?
Cameron: Well, he's a widower. He runs a vacuum cleaner shop in Dublin. He's only got one son. Guy is his only child and I get the feeling that he was a musician at some point and he's lost … the music. He’s just a bit flat, just going through the motions. Life sort of beat him down a bit.
Judith: How does he respond to Girl coming into Guy’s life?
Cameron: I think he likes the idea that his son’s got someone who he loves, you know. The son comes home with someone that is sweet and I think he feels good about that. Because his son fell out of a relationship six months ago, so the house … I'm getting that the household’s pretty depressed and lacking in female energy.
Judith: Have you worked in the Eternity before? Do you love it?
Cameron: The first time I went in there was to audition for this and I just love the space!
Judith: How about the front row so close?
Cameron: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I've done a few shows where the audience is very up-close-and-personal and I'm glad that I have done it. I did Holding the Man in Los Angeles and we did that in a theatre where the audience were literally right there on top of us. So I feel I'm ready. (Laughter)
Judith: It’s still not as close to television! With your process, did you start with the music first or did you start with the character of Da?
Cameron: (Thinking) I'm going to say I started with the book first. Yeah, with the book, with the words, so, I guess, with the character. Umm, and then the songs but it's difficult because I was already aware of the music. I already knew a bunch of the songs to listen to, not to play - didn't know the chord structures or anything. So that's all come to me while we were rehearsing; that's still coming.
Judith: Did you have to learn any new instruments or anything?
Cameron: No, not really but perhaps … we're still breaking it down. We're still really in exploration mode. So, you know, I'll bring harmonica, maybe tin whistle, to it if there's a spot. There's nothing in the score for that but Vicky's pretty open to experimenting. And the guitar parts, that's where I come in.
So what’s been really lovely, I found an old guitar. It's an antique guitar... I found it in a Narooma junk shop 30 years ago. It’s this old Tex Morton Dobro guitar and I've rebuilt it and redone it and I get to play it in the show. And that's all slide guitar, which is not in script, but we're putting it in there. So Da plays slide guitar!
Judith: Cool! And what about the movement? Is that fun?
Cameron: Yeah. Yes. I’m not coming from any kind of movement background, but I do love it and find it invigorating.
Judith: It's the rhythm is it?
Cameron: Yes it is and that's the heart… I think that's the heart. The heartbeat of the musical is the acoustic instruments and the wonderful connection of wood and soul and heart. The heartbeat just comes through it and it’s infectious.
Judith: Looks like you are needed in the room, one last question. I've been asking everyone! Do you think romance happens this quickly, are you a believer?
Cameron: I'm living proof of it. I met my wife three weeks before her 21st birthday. I wrote a song for her in the first two weeks, sang it at her 21st in front of all her friends … who I didn't know! Three months later I asked her to marry me and a year later we were married. And 28 years on we are still together. It happens you know … it's a soul connection thing.
Musical Director Victoria Falconer-Pritchard.
When I arrived well before rehearsal call time for a chat with Victoria Falconer-Pritchard, the Musical Director of Once, we realised that we had to move locations so my recorder would work. The room was filled with sound and movement … mandolins, guitars, flutes all warming up and cast in flight practicing their moves around the marked out space. I began by asking Victoria about that.
Judith: This is such a musically complex show. Did you look at the cast and what they can do or did you do the arrangements first and then try to find the people?
Victoria: So, it was a little bit of a chicken and egg situation for quite some time. We did the auditions in January and I was in the middle of touring shows around festivals here in Australia, so I knew what I ideally wanted, and knew what Richard ideally wanted, but we were also very open to what we could find. Because it's not just the musical ability – it’s musical ability, it's dance, it's singing, it's acting and it's also the vibe of being able to do … well, we wanted the cast to sound like a band. As well as a cast, properly a band!
And I was open to the idea that some of the instruments were going to be switched around. So, for example, in the script, it says that the bank manager plays the cello, whereas we have moved that. So now somebody else plays the cello and the bank manager plays the mandolin. I wanted to make sure I had people who were, even if they didn't necessarily see themselves as such, that they could be cajoled into becoming multi-instrumentalists. And luckily we are at that point where, you know, I'll turn to our drummer and be like … can you please play these other instruments? And I don't think I've had anybody say no yet, even when it's not their thing.
With the arrangements, basically the way they are written down is interesting because you can see that it's folk music that's then been notated by somebody who comes from a classical background. So you lose a lot of, not necessarily nuance, but the stylistic vibes of both Czech and Irish folk music from which all this music is gleaned; plus Glen Hansard’s own style is very much in there. So I wanted to tap into that but also have the sense that we can be free with it - because music is passed down by ear a lot and some of our cast don't read.
We've got such a mix of different backgrounds that we need to interpret the music in a way that suits everybody, but also serves the purpose. Because it's telling narrative stories. So it was very much writing the arrangements a little bit, then seeing who we had and then working with the skills that we had, together. Because finding the people … it was hard and we found that we had what we needed and could tell the story in a way that would showcase their skills.
Judith: I watched the video of the making the Broadway album and someone was saying … people love this music so you can't be too “wildly interpretive”.
Victoria: People know the songs and the songs are beloved, more so than I even knew. Everybody that I've been telling, friends inside the industry, friends outside the industry, lose their minds whether it’s the film or the musical or the album. I've seen the film, I haven't seen the live stage show before, I've seen little bits of it, but not live.
So I know that we have to stay true to the essence of it, but also, this is the thing … ‘Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka’ the Czech song is a folk song. And if you look on YouTube there are like hundreds of different versions. There's a heavy rock version that Linda, our dialect coach sent me, and it's outrageous, incredible.
So … I don't subscribe to the idea that we can't necessarily interpret it in the way that we need to tell the story, because the story is what makes the show. And the story is so authentic and so human and the songs are the same, the way that they were originally written. So even if you interpret them differently, you are never going to change that. It's ingrained.
Judith: It is a live experience after all?
Victoria: Exactly. And we're not removing it from the genre, we're keeping it exactly where it is … but arranging it with a slightly different set of instruments or stripping some bits out, putting some bits in, adding harmony lines here and there because it serves the different characters’ arcs. I think that's part of interpreting this kind of music.
Now it's canon, I mean, even the songs which are written for this that aren't based on folk music, they’re folk songs now because we have been relearning them and reinterpreting them.
Judith: Because of the romance involved, is it string heavy?
Victoria: No, I mean, yes and no. We have a string section and it depends if you count mandolins and guitars! (laughing) There is a scene with many, many guitars. But you mean that kind of swooning string action?
Judith: Yeah, that’s what was on my mind.
Victoria: Yes and no. There's some lines you can't lose because people need them, need to hear them, but we're certainly making it a little more raw, I suppose.
Judith: One last question, I'm asking everyone. Do you think falling in love can happen this quickly?
Victoria: Absolutely! Absolutely! Romance can happen in the raising of an eyebrow…I think that's very, very true.
Toby Francis is Guy to Stefanie Caccamo’s Girl.
Rehearsal photos: Robert Catto
In the current series of the Sit-Down Sessions, I’m with the cast of Once, coming soon to Darlinghurst Theatre Company. Toby Francis is one of those people who always makes me laugh when we speak, yet, he is also thoughtful and open in a way that makes me even more excited to see his work, in what is shaping up to be a marvellous show.
Judith: So who are you and who do you play?
Toby: I’m Toby Francis and I play Guy in Once.
Judith: I’m going to ask Stefanie, too… have you created a secret name for this guy. That nobody else knows, like in Cats.
Toby: (Laughter) I haven't created a secret name for him but maybe, maybe, Mr. Mistoffelees would work. Maybe that's his name!
Judith: So you are well into rehearsals now and I was wondering, after all your research, are you a now vacuum cleaner expert?
Toby: I'm not, but - I have I have pulled apart a lot of stuff at home over the years and destroyed more appliances in my house than I've repaired. So I like to think I'm highly qualified for this job. But I always had this thing that if you wanted to make some money … possibly going into refrigeration repair. And so I think that's going to be my fallback, actually. I might destroy your fridge, because I can definitely break an appliance. So I'll break a fridge … and then my little brother will fix it for you.
Judith: Okay, so wee bit of reverse engineering there. Applying that to the show, what’s your process? Do you work with the music first, or the character, or they all so intertwined?
Toby: I did start with the music … as soon as I found out I got the role I asked for the sheet music and started learning it. To get that off the page and get it into my body. Because there's a difference between playing a song that is somebody else's song and reciting that, if you will, than playing something that is yours. And these songs need to feel like they are his … so feel like second nature and feel like they've come from him.
But as far as character goes, I feel really close to Guy. He's been through an incredible heartbreak, which is something I sort of resonate with and I know that feeling. And nothing, sounds very dramatic, but truly, nothing on Earth feels like devastating heartbreak. It's come at a time in my life that is very pertinent actually, so I don't know if it's lucky or unlucky that I didn't have to do too much research about Guy’s character and just got to focus on the music. Yeah, I was doing research on the character of Guy without knowing it while going through relationships and different things like that.
But no, I definitely started with the music because I also think that's where my character speaks. He's not very forthcoming with his emotions or his feelings, and he's not as articulate as he'd like to be. But with his music, that's really where he speaks and that's his language. So to start with that was to start with the core of who he is.
Judith: Have you had to learn any new instruments or anything?
Toby: No, but I haven't played guitar for maybe 17 years. So, I've been very lucky in that all I've had to do was focus on guitar. I don't have to play anything else, but there are other people in this show who are playing five or six instruments. Everyone's incredibly talented and there I am, just strumming my little guitar.
Judith: I’m asking everyone this question. Do you think that romantic love exists in this way? That, like Girl and Guy, we can fall in love so quickly.
Toby: Yes. Yeah. I absolutely do. I think that, in fact, I think that we kind of romanticise it a little by thinking that it's the only love that's valid and real … or that romantic love that comes about so quickly, must also be followed to its logical conclusion. Which is kids and a happy family and I don't think love is that simple? In reality, the way that love works, you can have familial love; you can have a platonic love; you can have a love of friendship; and a romantic love. We have this idea that the Prince and the Princess will run away together once they're in love but I don't think life is that simple. But that overwhelming feeling when you first fall for someone, when that's the only thing that matters, I think it can happen very quickly.
Sometimes the best way to love somebody, is to love them purely and unconditionally and then allow that to be what it was. Just go … the love was what it was and there is nothing more to it. And I think that's why Once resonates so much, because it is a love story and it is about falling in love very quickly, but it isn't a traditional one in the sense that it's all primroses and beauty.
Judith: So you're expecting people to leave holding hands?
Judith: And what will they be humming? What's the earworm?
Toby: ‘Falling Slowly’ is definitely the most well-known … that won the Oscar. I wake up every morning with a different song in my head, just repeating over and over again. It's very, very catchy and it’s so rhythmic. It gets into your skin very quickly, but definitely, ‘Falling Slowly’.
Judith: I suppose that’s the Irishness … You’ve had to learn an accent?
Toby: “To be sure!” Absolutely I do have to do an Irish accent. But, also, the interesting thing about music, is that each country plays the music differently - like Australian Rock’s different to American Rock or British Folk Music is different to Irish Folk Music. So there's a way in which they play - in which their rhythms and their melodies and harmonies come together in each country that makes a musical accent of that country. And as much as I had to learn an Irish accent with my vocabulary, I also had to learn an Irish accent with my music.
Judith: Yeah, and the movement too. There's a lot of moving.
Toby: There is, there is, and that makes your brain melt. Like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time.
Judith: How the rehearsal room experience been?
Toby: It's been incredible since day one. We got here and, it’s a very clichéd thing to say in an interview but it's absolutely true with this cast, we got here and everyone was immediately so warm. I mean, it's very Russian but there’s a comradeship to it. You go … these are the people!
It was almost like when I hear stories about people going to see their family in Europe, Italy and Greece and places like that, and they've never met these people and are two generations apart and are, maybe, second cousins. But because they’re family, they rock up on the doorstep and say… hi, we're your family from Australia. And they’re all … come in, we love you. Kisses, hugs, these people you’ve never met … sit down… stay the night … fantastic! And that's what it felt like here in this room. It was like … oh we all already know each other. But we don't. We already know each other because we're in this thing together so it feels like that; like this little community who all meet down the pub for a scotch egg and a Guinness pie!
A peek behind the curtain with
Production Designer Hugh O'Connor (L)
Lighting Designer Peter Rubie (R).
This long read article continues our look at the rehearsal and preparations for Once, coming next to Darlinghurst Theatre. Always keen to see behind the curtain, I managed to squeeze into the hella-paced schedule of Production Designer Hugh O'Connor to ask about what we can expect to see. Then, unable to pin down Lighting Designer Peter Rubie, I emailed him some questions.
First up, a chat with Hugh.
Judith: First stop for any researcher is Wikipedia, because we trust it so much! I saw the show described as minimalist. Immediate thought …I don’t think so.
Hugh: (laughing) No, I don't think the design or the approach we've taken is minimalism because I feel like the play needs a lot of life and needs a lot of detail and needs a lot of … stuff to fill their world.
Judith There are several different little spaces in this world?
Hugh: There are. And in the world we've created we've got a world where everything is existing in the one space - but within that creative dynamic there are spaces that can exist as other spaces. Because we do transition in this piece to a lot of different locations. So, we wanted to create something that was consistent within itself and where it was, but also, had lots of dynamic spaces that could help communicate those other places that they exist in.
Judith: And the piano? I bet you had auditions!
Hugh: The piano has been a real, kind of, thing … that's required some attention! Because it has to, firstly, sound good. It has to also look the part but also, Girl spends a lot of time at the piano. So we needed a certain height because we need everyone to see her face over the top. So we've been looking at a lot of old console pianos which are in people's houses, but they're often not in good nick. So it's been a real negotiation getting this piano here, into the room.
We've ended up with a really good one, but it's been a journey trying to satisfy all the needs that this piano has and it's also a really important piano, narrative wise. (Laughing) So yeah! You'd think getting a piano on the space is easy but sometimes it takes a lot of work.
Judith: As far as your costume design, what palette are you working with?
Hugh: We are trying to go for something that has a sense of naturalism, but also trying to push lots of pattern and life and keep it all within an autumnal kind of scope. But also, because we have a really big set that's got a lot of brown colours and a dark Irish kind of sense, giving colours in the costumes that help pop them out. Helping to give a sense of the life and the character and the joy to them.
I always like putting a bit of pattern in things because I think it helps to just create a little bit of visual interest in a character. And whether you want to clash the patterns or make them cohesive, what stories can you tell within those textures and tones that you're working with?
Judith: So with the audience that close, I suppose you've been immersed in buttons and such.
Hugh: Totally! And in a space like this it’s always the tension between looking good from afar, but also looking good from up close. That's always a tricky thing where you have the breadth of an audience who are both very close and very far away.
Judith: And they have to move a lot, don’t they?
Hugh: They do, they do. So there's a lot of practical considerations. Like how do these jeans feel? Can you crouch in them? Can you jump in them? They have to last a whole season of being kicked around, so all of these things kind of swirl around.
In the fittings that I'm doing at the moment, we are talking about these practical considerations, but also discussing psychology and dramaturgy with the actors and their interpretation of the character and yours and where it's meeting. There's a lot that goes in to what eventually goes on stage.
Judith: And are you a finder more than a maker?
Hugh: Absolutely. My skills are definitely not in costume making or set making. As a designer … I’ve had an idea … but then I find an object that might be totally unusual. Unlike anything you've thought of … and that can inspire a choice that you can make. So, I love finding an unusual costume or prop item. Sometimes you find something that is just everything you wanted plus something you could have never imagined and that's the exciting part that I really enjoy.
Judith: And the romance? What romance is in the visuals for the audience?
Hugh: We are trying to imbue the whole design aesthetic with a sense of earnestness and a sense of, I guess, Irishness that will hopefully communicate this kind of romantic idea. It’s almost like a nostalgic romantic idea because folk music is very nostalgic. It's very sorrowful and melancholic but also hopeful, in a way. So trying to communicate those things through all the visual choices we've made has been a constant throughline.
I think if the audience takes away a sense of intimacy and of delicate small moments existing within a much larger picture … one of warmth and joy in time and age. I think if those things are communicated and if there's a sense of joy, but also melancholy communicated, we've done our jobs.
Judith: I’m asking everybody the same question. Do you think the romance, this kind of romance, can happen this quickly? Are you a believer?
Hugh: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I met my husband and like six hours after I met him I said … I'm going to marry that man. And I'm married to him and I think romance can happen that quickly. I think if you can sustain it, that's a different thing; it becomes a different thing in the future. But I don't think falling in love with someone very quickly is an impossible thing, I think it happens all the time. I think it's absolutely possible. I think the larger question is how do you sustain that and what does that become as a long-term negotiation of romance.
Next up in this long read is some email questions of the lighting designer, Peter.
Judith: Let’s start with basics … what physical aspects influenced your choice of colour palette?
Peter: The set design and colouring are the biggest influences on colour palette along with the scenes we’re meant to be set in. A lot of the scenes are set in naturalistic environments, such as someone’s home, at the pub, or on a busy Dublin street … so in the first instance we’re lighting with a more standard neutral colour palette that you would get in a play.
Richard and I are not wedded to that for the entire show, however. We’ll be layering some hyper saturation colour on top of that when we move into the more fantasy world that some of the songs bring.
Judith: Some of the music has real fire but there are many intimate songs too. How do you use size and light levels to influence mood?
Peter: This show is actually going to be all about controlling the size and levels. The big challenge ahead for me is that we have a wide, but very shallow stage with a single set on it that has to fit about 14 different locations in it, so at times we will be needing to shape those spaces with light toning the times of day differently with colour. Busier, fuller scenes will need to feel strong, lively and therefore be bright in intensity as well as colour, but I’m hoping for the smaller intimate locations that we can afford to darken the space to really pull focus in.
We’re very lucky to have some generous lighting equipment sponsors for this show which has allowed us to add some moving lights to the space with special tech in them that allows moving and controllable framing of the light source. We’re working with limitations of physics of course, light always bounces off surfaces and up on to other surfaces we may not want to see, so the lighting and set for this show will play a big role in suggesting scenes, but equally important is the location setting in the dialogue and the cast bringing the audiences imaginations into those worlds.
Judith: What’s your philosophy about light changes inside the songs?
Peter: People are sometimes reserved about this, but my philosophy is that if expressively it feels right for the lights to build and fall with the musical dynamics, then they should. The movement and stage direction almost always follow the peaks and troughs, so the lighting should too.
Often it will be subtle slow changes that the audience may not even notice, but for the more fiery numbers it can help to be a little dynamic and abrupt. I also think it’s important in a musical to, where possible, close off songs with a button (a grand and quick finish). When we are taken to a slightly more fantasy world with a song both musically and with lighting and movement, we need a way to bring that to a grand close that (hopefully) brings an audience reaction and enables us a way to jump back to the reality of the naturalistic world.
Judith: I presume that you won’t be using followspots. It’s an accomplished cast but how do you weigh up how often performers need to hit marks?
Peter: There won’t be a followspot on this one, despite there being a couple of moments where it would probably help! A lot of the more intimate numbers where we want to pull in, for example Girl at the piano in ‘The Hill’ will be dictated by where the piano goes, but of course there will be other moments where I’ll want to narrow down to certain cast members.
For example, there is a moment where Guy and Girl are singing solo but in different spaces. In some moments like that we will be relying on them and some of the other cast to hit their marks. Our cast are incredible as they have to remember not only their lines and libretto but the music they are playing on their instruments too, so a position on stage should be a walk in the park for them!
Judith: Does the closeness of the front rows at the Eternity affect how often you throw forward from the upstage bars?
Peter: Quite often! If you’re in the front row of one of my shows, you’re bound to be lit at some point. A lot of my work is in the contemporary music field, so I usually don’t have any hesitation kicking lights out of the performance space. While this is not a rock show, we’re applying a relaxed principle of separating the world of the audience and the stage. In fact, Hugh has specifically designed the stage floor that is in the show’s world, to extend under the feet of the audience. They will and should feel like they are in the world right from the moment they enter the auditorium.
Judith: Final question … do you have a favourite colour to use and why do you like it?
Peter: Blue is my favourite colour (not just in lighting). In lighting however blue (even if it’s a tint) works exceptionally well as a complimentary colour to the other colours in the spectrum; more than any others. I’m also not afraid to offset warm colours against a background of cool or blue colours. Because we’re not used to seeing it in naturalistic lighting, I think it challenges and can excite our minds, if the perfect balance is found.
In conversation with Stefanie Caccamo
Rehearsal photos: Robert Catto
In the current series of the Sit-Down Sessions I’m with the cast of Once, coming soon to Darlinghurst Theatre Company. Today’s conversation is with Stefanie Caccamo who plays ‘Girl’ in the production.
Absolutely charming to speak with, I caught Stefanie off guard with my first question and she got fellow castmate Toby Francis to help out.
Judith: ‘Girl’ is a bit non-descript do you have a Cats name for her?
Stefanie: (laughing) I haven't actually thought. Toby, what was your answer to that? I don't know Cats very well.
Judith: They have a secret name only they know.
Stefanie: Ah, she's ‘Girl’ in my head. (big smile)
Judith: Not telling, eh? So … Girl is Czech? How was having to pick up that accent?
Stefanie: It's actually not too bad. In my mind, I sort of hear it as a mix of Russian and Spanish both of which I have done before so just mixing the two together has been interesting. But yeah, it's a slow process just getting it around the mouth. It's different tongue positions and mouth positions, even the jaw and the lips stay very far back and very still. But it’s definitely a process and we’re still working on it. But it’s a gorgeous accent and when I get it right, I’m so … oh, it’s so musical.
Judith: Do you see that as part of the romance? That these two characters have met in this way and they are so different?
Stefanie: I do, I do. I think culturally very different but what brings them together is the music - their love and passion for that and the curiosity of each other's cultures. How different their lives are. That's what she finds, especially in the first scene, she is so interested and curious about him. Like what do you mean you were too busy to do this? You do that? And then he comes over to my house and meets my family and it is completely different.
There’s singing, and playing, with dancing and it's crazy and he's just swept up in it. I think it's amazing. You know … opposites attract.
Judith: Tell me, have you had to learn new instruments and so forth to go with the show?
Stefanie: I've had to learn a melodica.
Judith: Out of my skill set, what is a melodica?
Stefanie: (Lots of laughing here) It's like a mini piano and it's got a little mouthpiece that you breathe into and then that's how you create the noise. So it's like a flute, but in the shape of the piano. So that and just more of the piano. I'm self-taught; I had a few lessons when I was younger, but I wasn't very interested in learning, but I loved playing. So I've been playing it my entire life, but that's definitely been a challenge. Not so much learning the music but dealing with the nerves, you know, playing in front of an audience in a proper show. And being a band member - I never thought that I would do something like that. So it's really exciting. It's challenging and that's why I love it.
Judith: Yeah, so you are formalizing instincts in a way?
Stefanie: Yeah. Yes just practicing … every single day for three or four hours. Just getting it in my DNA so that when I jump on stage it is second nature and I don't have to think about it. I can just focus on acting and being with the characters.
Judith: I expect the songs are also a way into the character?
Stefanie: Because of the piano, I started with the music. And because they're all written, the majority of them, they are either his songs or her songs, you can learn a lot from them about their experiences …which was nice. And then, yeah, and then I went back and did script analysis stuff.
Judith: And as far as the shape of the songs, are you a belter or do you like those softer, warmer songs?
Stefanie: I love both. Oh my gosh, I think I'm a sucker for the softer ballads and really simple songs and her song ‘The Hill’ is definitely that but the more passionate she gets …
I like belting when it calls for it; when the song is so passionate that you can no longer just speak. You know, when you can't speak … you sing. And this show has everything in it - from really small beautiful intimate moments to the really, really passionate.
Judith: You're so close to the front rows as well in this theatre. Can that be intimidating?
Stefanie: I mean, I’m sure I’ll find it a little intimidating at first, but I'm so glad it's such an intimate theatre because this piece is perfect for the Eternity. It's a type of piece where you want the audience to, sort of, come to you and just be immersed in it. If you're far away, I feel like you'd miss the intricacies of the work on stage.
Judith: I’m one of the people who hasn’t seen the film on which the show is based, do you think one should see it beforehand or is live better for first contact?
Stefanie: I think I'd want to see it live because hearing these songs and these instruments live is unbelievable. The movie’s gorgeous, the movie is so, so beautiful, but there's something about hearing live instruments and watching real life theatre in front of you that just moves you in a different way. So I think seeing this live the first time would be amazing and then of course you go back.
Judith: I'm asking everyone just one question in common and that's… do you think that this kind of love can happen this quickly. Are you a believer?
Stefanie: Absolutely. Yeah, I think it's a different kind of love. I think, not a childish love, but it's like your first day of kindergarten and you meet your best friend. You come home… I met my best friend who’s going to be my best friend for the next five years.
I feel like that Guy and Girl have a young, sort of precious, very pure unaffected love. I don't know if it exists in the real world, but it definitely exists in their little bubble. And I think that's what they can hold onto within themselves. Having experienced that pure love and that joy, I think they just keep it with them. Yeah. I absolutely believe that it exists but I don't know if it lasts.
A sit-down chat with Director Richard Carroll.
Rehearsal photos: Robert Catto
Once is coming to Darlinghurst Theatre Company and it is a musical which is loved … revered by many. Based on the movie of the same name by John Carney, with a score by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová and the book by Enda Walsh, Once has won eight Tony Awards, a Grammy, an Olivier and four Drama Desk Awards. Plus an Oscar for the song ‘Falling Slowly’.
Now, I know the music and the various YouTube clips that are around but I have never seen the film. This all made me very keen to find out more about the stage version. In the current series of the Sit-Down Sessions I had the privilege of speaking with some of the cast and creatives of this new production.
With mandolin practice and sweetly lyrically piano as our accompaniment, before rehearsal kicked off one cold morning, I spoke with Director Richard Carroll. That was, after I fangirled him a bit about his body of work, especially Calamity Jane.
Judith: So why this project?
Richard: It seems very different from something like Calamity Jane but I find that I'm always attracted to shows that are theatrical in one way or another; so I'm not a massive fan of naturalism. And for me it's all about giving people a reason to go to the theatre when they could just stay at home and watch Netflix. And so I find that I'm attracted to shows where the performers don't just act – they sing, they dance and, in this case of course, they play instruments.
Different ways of storytelling can only happen in a theatre and I think that's one of the exciting things about Once. It's a show when music is such a massive part of the story and driving of the plot and that is theatrically represented in such a clear and exciting way. There's a big attraction to me in that.
And it's also just such a beautiful story and it's a simple story that is really specific and relatable to everyone in terms of the kernel of the journey of the two central characters.
Judith: This show is so beloved, I hear so many people excited for it. How do you balance that reverence with giving it a fresh interpretation?
Richard: I think you just have to, kind of, have to look at the story itself and the music and identify what it is about the story and the characters that appeals to you and focus on that. And I, unfortunately at the time… I was really gutted about it… but now I think, fortunately, I never watched the original production. Overseas or in Australia. So that is awfully helpful that I don't have that imprinted in my mind.
With this show in particular, there is obviously that massive imprint from that original production; the conceit of having all of the actors play instruments and that's something that's just a part of the show now. And that's fine. And I think I didn't want to do anything that deliberately separates us from that production for the sake of it; there are very good reasons why they chose that device certainly. Yeah, and certainly I don't want to work against that I want to embrace it.
And so it's just about finding the right actors for your vision with the roles and then working with them and bringing out of them what they can bring to the role in the narrative, and then that shapes the show as a whole.
And the same with the creative team… with the set designer and lighting designer, the movement director and a musical director, doing what they do best. Vicki (Victoria Falconer-Pritchard) our musical director works a lot in the cabaret world. She's a bandleader. That's a very different dynamic to have someone who's on stage as part of the show, leading the band, than it is for traditional musical theatre or a musical director who's teaching everyone the songs from the score, as you would in a musical. That's been one of the most exciting things about this, too.
It’s great to have that band feeling where people learn things by hearing them. The band will sit around and say … What if I do this? or What if I take that line instead of this? … and so that kind of development has made this organically our very own production.
Judith: It’s certainly got that feel to it in the rehearsal room but there’s also a very intimate little story at the centre isn’t there?
Richard: One of the beautiful things about this show is that it's only 11 actors and they all only play one role, which is very unusual in a musical. Toby and Stef (Toby Francis, Stefanie Caccamo) playing Guy and Girl very much take the heavy lifting of the narrative and they're just two absolutely gorgeous actors.
And it's just a joy to watch their story develop and everything else that happens around it serves that narrative. I mean, there are sub-plots, but they're very, very small and, actually, that's what makes it such a beautiful, simple story is that you are following that narrative. And you're following the dual trajectories of the Guy and Girl.
And that's why I think, when people talk about Once seeming more like a play with music than a musical, I think that's what they mean. Following the narrative really feels more like a play.
Judith: Apart from the songs on repeat in their ear, what are you hoping the audience will take away with them?
Richard: There's the theatrical element where we really want to infuse people with the joy of music making and the joy of watching incredibly talented people share their talent, openly and with joy. And I think that is a constant theme of my work: that there's an element of joy to it and in the way in which it is presented.
Also, in terms of the terms of the narrative of the show, I think it's about vulnerability and I think that's something which is very important to everyone and certainly in today's world… the importance of allowing yourself to be vulnerable in order to be happy, in order to have love, and in order to achieve your full potential. The show doesn't explicitly talk about that but that is the journey of both of the two characters and that, whether people think about consciously or not, that's what I'd like them to take away.
Judith: I was interested to see when looking at the creatives you have on board that there is a Movement Director (Amy Campbell). Am I right that it's not choreography – it’s movement with instruments?
Richard: You're right. I mean and we called Amy the Movement Director for that reason, but really, she has really pushed this cast. You know, when you watch the numbers it is like proper choreography but I think she's really pushed them all to do more than they ever thought they could do. Which is really exciting and that's one of the reasons I love working with her. She's great at working with people who are not dancers normally by profession and getting them to do things that they never thought they could do.
Judith: One last question, I'm asking everybody this. Do you think that romance can happen this quickly? Are you a believer?
Richard: Yes, absolutely. I think undeniably and I think that it comes with its complications when it does and that's part of what the show explores. I'm a romantic. Of course, I work in the theatre!
Murder, She Sang
Sitting down with the co-creator and singer, Caitlin Rose.
Lethal female eh? Murder, She Sang? I was curious about that and how it makes a cabaret so I wangled an invitation to meet Caitlin Rose who is the wise-chick, along with wise-guy Alexander Andrews, behind this interesting concept. Interrupting her at rehearsal with Musical Director, Harry Collins, I got an insight into how the show is shaping up.
Judith: So tell me the origin story of Murder, She Sang.
Caitlin: So basically, long story short, Alex and I were at my birthday a couple of years ago and I was talking about my cabaret. About wanting to write one and create one and Rose (Rose McClelland, Producer for Little Triangle) kind of jumped in was like, I would love to produce it, to work on it with you etc. But we kind of benched it for a while when it was busy. And then Alex and I caught up one day and we started talking about it. And we're like, let's get this happening.
Initially my plan was to do something along the lines “roles I wish I'd done” … classic cabaret. Then he had this idea one day of doing something with a really strong powerful female character … and I have already quite an affinity with the 30s, 40s, kind of old-school vibe. So we merged there to develop this Femme Fatale kind of kind of character and themes.
It was quite funny, because every rehearsal we'd have all these great song ideas and great, structural ideas kind of thing, but every time it came to actually writing the script would just go … and she'd say something like! And always leave it there. So we got to this point where Alex said, we need to bring someone else on board which is how Hayden (Writer Hayden Rodgers) got involved with the project.
Judith: So are they songs of a period?
Caitlin: They are not necessarily from the 30s and 40s are they Harry?
Harry: Some of the songs are reminiscent of that style but might have been written later. So there are songs from the 90s that sort of hark back to that Noir aesthetic of the thirties and forties. Then there are some included from that period … sort of a mixture and we stylistically smooth that out to be more cohesive.
Judith: And you are playing, Harry?
Harry: Yes. I'll be on stage … just piano and Caitlin.
Caitlin: My idea was the fewer outliers that you have to worry about, the easier, the better. We initially started, actually, with having a detective, so having a male character that was a voiceover, but would be live. There are multiple reasons why we decided not to do that but I think one of the reasons was to actually go simpler and be able to adjust on the fly.
Judith: So is she a modern girl but in an older time?
Caitlin: I think what I love about this is that we have kind of melded a lot of me personally into it. So obviously it's 2019. It's very current. Hayden's done a really great job of melding in that old world … we do use Film Noir quotes. Actual quotes taken from shows and from books and stuff.
But I think it's great to be able to translate the emotions of this modern period so obviously everyone can relate. To someone cheating on them or hurting them and those emotions, they’re always going to be topical right?
Judith: Have you had to change the songs very much for reaching a contemporary audience?
Harry: They translate pretty easy. We've found that there's places that we can add humour in just to sort of keep light; we’re not trying to do an entirely serious melodramatic piece. But it can be deliberately hammy because it plays into that sort of melodramatic aesthetic. And so we've changed some of the intentions from how you might find them if you were an audience member in 1940 seeing one of these songs in an original show; some of the lines are performed differently or we've added pauses or dialogue breaks in the middle of songs. I guess with the cabaret as well, when you've got a story that's not where the songs are from, they all end up being adjusted somewhat.
Judith: So Caitlin what pictures are you going to have on your dressing room wall do you think?
Caitlin: I know it’s not the right era as such but Marilyn Monroe, it’s so cliché, but she always has been an influence ever since I was growing up … I love red lipstick, love red nails.
Harry: (laughing) Jessica Rabbit!!
Caitlin: Yeah, yeah. Definitely. I loved that when I was growing up- like she's just a piece of me and embodiment of woman and I just I love, I love all that stuff. I'm very feminine. I love, you know, all that makeup and hair and to be honest that's the research I've been doing. Like what makeup can I get out … my dress is a big debacle, you know, that scares!
Judith: Did you have any favourite songs you had to leave out?
Caitlin: Well, one of them we basically built the cabaret around and it had to go. There were so many great ones. I mean, we wanted originally to do a big love medley. So we were going to have the classic love songs …like the Moulin Rouge elephant love medley. We were going to have ‘I Will Always Love You’ in it, you know those kind of stereotypical songs.
Harry: Yeah, but the way it's worked out now, I think it's a lot more true to the style.
Caitlin: Yes. I think there was so many that we thought that would sound great. But once we fitted them in they were too stark and there was too much we’d have to change.
Harry: And a couple we cut for time. Well, it's one of those things when you're reading a script for the first time you sit down to go… Oh, that's a very long second act! Needs to be trimmed.
Caitlin: Because we had ‘My Man’ in it, didn’t we, until literally last week.
Harry: Yeah we cut it!
Caitlin: I'm big on not being too self-indulgent, I think it’s too easy as a performer to be, like … this song sounds so great and is so fun to sing but if it doesn't make sense and work in with the story - you're just kind of floating in this middle area. I think that gets boring as an audience member and that's the goal we've had is to make it as interesting and as exciting for an audience member as possible.
Harry: And the thing ultimately is that music theatre is about telling the story. There are moments where you can really enjoy a song but if it's not serving the story …
Caitlin: Yeah and you just disconnect with an audience.
Judith: On that note … last question. Do you think there'll be a certain amount of hand holding in the audience? Is it one for the lovers?
Harry: Oh, I think so at some points, yeah.
Caitlin: Originally we wanted to make it really comedic and the whole thing funny but I think we found a happy middle ground where it's quite nostalgic. Yeah, that's the best word at the end. It's quite, it is quite, poignant.
It is about love. I think the whole the whole show is about love. Whether it's a healthy kind of love or a toxic kind of love, it is about love and I think at the end you do get these moments of … I know I have had that or I want to have that. So yeah it is.
Image credit: Shakira Wilson
Anatomy of a Suicide
In sitting down with cast member Jack Crumlin, I had the chance to indulge my curiosity about the unusual structure of this play.
Anatomy of a Suicide by Alice Birch, from Sugary Rum Productions is next up at the Old Fitz Theatre. It’s a uniquely written show with a style that has been much discussed. I was keen to get some insights from someone smack dab in the middle and had an opportunity to sit down with Jack Crumlin, one of the cast.
Judith: So, it’s about three generations of women. Where does your character fit in?
Jack: Where he fits in is in the centre generation. So set around the year 2000 roughly. My character comes in and falls in love with Anna, the character that Andrea Demetriades is playing. She's the daughter in the middle generation of the three central females.
Judith: And how does it all unfold? The images that I've had a look at seem to show it in one room.
Jack: There are some central locations in the play. So there's a house in the play that a lot of the action centres around but there are other locations as well. But the form of the play is, kind of, the thing that is the most exciting - because we see three generations of women and three different stories set in different time zones all playing out at the one time on stage.
And there are a lot of plays which play around with time and that kind of thing but usually it's … you'll have a scene in whatever decade and then the next scene will be 20 years in the future. But in this particular play, we actually have a scene in the 70s, a scene in the 90s, and then a scene in 2030, roughly, all playing out at the same time.
Judith: So all the dialogue overlaps?
Jack: There's a lot of overlapping dialogue or there's a lot of instances where we'd be having a conversation, for example, and then in a pause in our dialogue, that's when someone else would continue talking. Then there are sections where the focus is placed on one character and everything else quietens down.
The way we've been approaching it is kind of like it's a musical piece. You know, it's very much about the rhythms and what's in focus at any given moment and that kind of thing.
Judith: Sounds like an actor challenge? So with a directorial approach (Director: Shane Anthony) to take it as a musical, does that mean learning it in beats?
Jack: I think we're kind of at the stage now, sort of midway through this rehearsal process, where we are getting quite technical about how we're approaching it. Because there is that difficult form, we're being very meticulous about making sure that everything is quite specific and perfect. And Shane is taking us through an amazing process of making sure that we are being really precise about that. So we can all start to feel really comfortable with that aspect … and then almost return to our individual acting process if that makes sense
Judith: That makes perfect sense. Actually. I think you like this kind of thing. I saw your work in Wasted, the Kate Tempest. Do you like structurally radical work?
Jack: I like radical work and I love dealing with language. I do a lot of work with Bell Shakespeare as well. So anything that deals with heightened language or heightened form, I think that's really that's really exciting to be a part of. And also within that form getting the opportunity to play roles that I think are slightly removed from my experience; my, kind of, life experience, you know what I mean.
Judith: It’s a heavy subject; suicide is in the title. But I would imagine it’s not overbearing.
Jack: I think Alice Birch, the playwright, really deals with the subject matter pretty incredibly. Because it is such a heavy subject matter that she's dealing with yet there are a lot of light moments and she deals with it in a really, really beautiful way. A lot of it is quite subtle and not too heavy handed.
So it'll be quite an emotional experience for the actors and the audience watching the show, but I think it's dealt with very delicately, which is yeah, it's beautiful.
Judith: That's an evocative description, actually, “delicately”. And so how does that make the rehearsal room?
Jack: Well, it's funny because there is this technical element to the play, I think the emotional content of the play is being sifted and gradually introduced the further that we go along. Because the more that we feel comfortable as actors listening to everything … because it's the type of thing where I'm responding to what you're saying , for example, but I'm taking my cue off, you know, my daughter 30 years in the future or something like that.
So it's really difficult. So once we've all settled in to that, then we can allow to just to filter through the more, sort of, emotional lives of our characters and that kind of thing. And that's already happening so much in the room where, especially the three women that the play centres around, they have to go through a really incredible character arc and the work that they're doing is just stunning.
Judith: There’s a density of themes in play, so your research must have been wide ranging.
Jack: So I've been doing a lot of research into quite a lot of different things because in the play my character’s arc spans over quite a long time. I start as a 28 year old and I end up as a 68 year old which is going to be quite interesting. So I've had to be doing a whole bunch of research. He's a documentary filmmaker, so I've been doing a lot of research into the process behind documentaries and watching a lot of documentaries about different things. Louis Theroux is a big reference for my character.
Also been doing a lot of research about heroin addiction, and about homelessness, and particularly about women who are sleeping rough in the UK. There's a really, really incredible documentary on YouTube actually called Love and Drugs On the Streets, (link) which follows the lives of these different women who are sleeping rough in Brighton and it's just really incredible to hear them talk about how they ended up in that situation and, you know, their day-to-day lives and their awareness that they have of the situation that they're in. So that's been a really just powerful and moving learning experience for me doing that kind of research.
And then I've also been doing research into pregnancy and in the, I guess, husband's role in in a pregnancy which has been fascinating. (laughing) Yeah. I'm pretending that I am actually going through that and trying to be, you know, knowledgeable about that kind of thing as well.
Judith: All of that research is really important at this venue … there's no place to hide on that stage!
Jack: Absolutely and especially with the play like this where there's going to be at least six people on the stage pretty much the whole time, you know. So how do you inhabit that character, physically and emotionally, and inhabit that role for a prolonged period of time even when you're not speaking. So I think all that research, it lives in your body and how can you communicate, you know, this character or this person's life experience, even when you're not speaking and the only way that you can do that is by having a world of understanding about their life and what they've been through.
Judith: Have you got a big genealogy on the wall in the rehearsal room?
Jack: Oh yeah, I mean, we've got a timeline. With Shane, the first thing that we started with was where we all are in this timeline spanning through the years and that kind of thing. And then we've all done our detailed work figuring out what has happened between scenes because you know between one of my scenes a year has passed … or between my second last scene and the last scene, 30 years has passed. So you have to build that imaginative history for yourself so that when you walk off the stage, you can almost go through a two minute meditation and go okay - this has happened; this has happened; this has happened - and then walk back on the stage physically inhabiting that.
Judith: Is this one of those shows that sentences begin in the middle of the conversation that we haven't heard as an audience.
Jack: Yeah. There's definitely a lot of that and there's also sentences that are interrupted halfway through as well. So I'm sure Alice Birch, the writer, had a field day knowing how challenging this was going to be for the actors. It's the type of play that before each show we’ll probably do a speed run of the entire show to warm up … challenging but very, very exciting.
Emerging artist - Artistic Director of Bearfoot Theatre
I Hope it’s Not Raining in London is a production from Bearfoot Theatre, a youth managed Newcastle company focused on original work. I have spoken by email to Riley McLean for years but never had the chance to see the work. The show is now going on tour: Newcastle to Tuggerah, Sydney to Melbourne. The touring company of six queer - identifying artists (between 18 and 25) will spend four weeks on the road in June/July , visiting six venues and performing sixteen times.
When Riley was recently in Sydney for meetings with PACT , the Sydney venue for the tour, I was very pleased to catch up with them at a coffee shop in Surry Hills that, annoyingly, had a broken machine. Over an iced tea, it was a real pleasure to get answers to the questions you can’t ask by email.
Judith: So … I've never seen any of your performances which is, perhaps, a bit weird but I have seen your work as Producer. So I'm going to ask two questions. Firstly when did you know you were interested in performance? And secondly, when did you know you had producing skills.
Riley: Right? So I've been performing like my whole life. I’m one of those classic little musical theatre kids who grow up being like “Broadway! Broadway!” and then in the midst of my HSC, which was 2014, I guess as a kind of a thing to do instead of study, I said, hey I want to put on a show … just to, I guess, to procrastinate and decided to start a company.
And I didn't know I'd be good at it. It was all it was a huge risk. Huge, huge, huge risk, it was just all my life savings thrown at a show - being like, I don't know if I'm going to get it back. And that's kind of how we've built up, just by getting money off this show into the next show, into the next show; and we've gotten to a point where we're stable, which is lovely.
Um, but the whole thing's real scary. Yeah, and I guess, I don't know, I realized I just had a passion for putting theatre together, which was something I never even really thought about until I gave it a shot.
Judith: Well, if you put your own money in … you're invested, got that passion. And the name of the company, Bearfoot?
Riley: Well, first that came from just a little quirk of not wearing shoes a lot, which is what you can expect, but I also I love a good pun and I love animals. Also when we were coming up with it, at first it was just a little quirky thing, but we went … we want something that also means kind of raw. It was real stuff that we putting out on the page and that “bear/bare” part even though it's not the same word, it also then links into that. And we just liked it.
Judith: Just meant to be! And who is we?
Riley: Well. I started it and then my partner, Cassie Hamilton, who was my real life partner and my business partner, she is the other Artistic Director. So she helps me pick shows and stuff and then there's a little team, it's probably about 30 of us now. Every time someone else joins a show they become a bear cub and we've got a little community starting. It's really sweet. But it is mostly just the two of us and then my mum is the Financial Manager, which is just classic of a small company isn’t it? Because she has been the Box Office Manager at our local theatre company for years as I was growing up, so already knew lots and just went … hey I can do all this for you! She's absolutely fantastic.
Judith: The company’s focus on original work how did that develop?
Riley: That was because I wrote a play. So that was basically … we were producing shows from a little website called Youth Plays and they were great and all, but we kind of went; you know, maybe we could write something a little better fitted to us. And didn't know if would go well, but I started having a little go with a 10 minute sketch. It was just a comedy sketch Do Your Parents Know You’re Straight? in a Short and Sweet Festival here.
We took it here and it was really well received and then I kind of went... Oh, I'll develop that into a big thing. And then before I knew it, it was it was fully realized and we put it on. Like, people went nuts for it and we weren't expecting that at all because all the shows before it, kind of, just broke even. But the amount of excitement about new work was absolutely incredible; we had so much support because everyone's like … wow, it's a new thing and it's LGBT. And from that point, I realized that there was like this niche that was missing, especially in Newcastle. There's probably a lot of it going on here, but in Newcastle, there wasn't a group dedicated to producing new stuff, especially work that focuses on social justice issues and stuff like that because we always have a focus like this.
Judith: So who's your audience?
Riley: It is largely kind of kind of youth, young adults, simply because those are the topics that we tackle - the things that are relevant to us. But I think our pieces have been universal.
We've had a few things that were 14 + so I'd never say an adult couldn’t come to one of our shows. We're not afraid to explore everything we want to explore, so sometimes it gets a bit heavy.
But early this year we did our first kids show. It was so lovely to get that new audience in, little kids enjoying themselves.
Judith: What made you decide to take this one on a small tour?
Riley: We've been really excited about getting our works out to a wider community and to not only represent ourselves but Newcastle theatre because, um, it's like a much smaller community, but it is alive and thriving and we get some really great stuff.
This one in particular was because; first off the playwright moved to Melbourne. He was also in the show when we did it last year and we kind of joked about... Oh, well, we should do it again and take the show to you. And then that idea just kept building up and building up. And because we're planning to take one of our bigger works here next year, we thought this show, with only four cast members, which is a minimalistic is small and easy. Good practice! And that's how it started and then somehow we miraculously got commissioned for a venue in Melbourne.
So then from there I started building it up a bit. I've never talked to venues about stuff like that because it's been Newcastle stuff with people you know. And so it's been, really, a learning opportunity for me and I'm sure the whole tour will be; we will learn so much. A lot will go wrong but a lot will go right.
Judith: Who are you expecting to attract in the bigger towns?
Riley: We're hoping people who are really interested in Indie, independent theatre, that different stuff… so not the same stuff you're always seeing - something that's a bit new. It's an innovative design.
Judith: So how are you promoting it because that's going to be your biggest challenge?
Riley: That's crazy because I know how to sell a show at home! So basically it’s just online stuff. I've contacted pretty much every newspaper and magazine I can find and all the reviewers I can find.
Yeah, just anything that I can get my hands on but it's really tricky obviously. Posters and flyers and stuff and we're making a day to come down here and go nuts on it.
Judith: Do you think there’ll be a resistance to people coming from out of town, rural out of town?
Riley: I think so, I do think it's going to be hard to sell. I do think a lot of people probably aren't going to take it too seriously. Also, the fact that we're young is always something that sometimes stands in our way. Sometimes it's good; sometimes people go … oh youth, emerging artists, that’s great! Other times …
Judith: “Oh they are just kids!”
Riley: Yeah, tricky, and it's something we are a bit scared of when we get to some of those big venues in Melbourne and stuff, that they go … Oh, I've been talking to these people but I didn't realize they were children. We're not actually that young but it feels like that sometimes.
Naughty with a Band
Coffee in the Cross with Pamela Shaw.
With a strapline like “the journey from obedience to not really giving a shit” I just had to meet the mind behind Naughty With a Band, Pamela Shaw.
Pamela is a writer, singer, actor who bought me a delicious coffee when we met for a chat in the Cross. What she called … “two old broads”. We had enormous fun and chatted away on a range of topics.
Judith: The poster for the show is great fun, what’s the show about?
Pamela: It's a combination of being intrigued by the character of Matilda (Roald Dahl) and the combination comes because she was so very different than what I was when I was a child. I had absolutely none of that… I was docile, and you know, seen and not heard - all that stuff and very obedient. And so she fascinated me and she gave me another way of, sort of, looking at life and a potential of being.
And also I like the song, let's face it. I just … I love it, I love it. And I think it's touching and clever which I'm a big fan of in the work; in any work. Did you see it?
Judith: Yep … and the second act is as good as the first which is so rare. It's really, really well done.
Pamela: Did you see the last thing he did? I know this is off track, but I ramble. I can’t remember the name
Judith: That’s fine, rambling is how the readers get to know you.
Pamela: (laughing) Groundhog Day. He's so clever is why it's wonderful.
Judith: So Matilda fascinated you, so you created this character.
Pamela: Yah, yah. I developed it because I thought, um, I've never done an autobiographical show or somewhat autobiographical. I'm sure … pretty autobiographical. I’ve never done one and I'm always intrigued with stuff that I haven't done.
Stuff that I think, no. No, I don't want to do that. And then I find out it scares me, you know, so then I have to do it.
Judith: You are not the only person who's ever said that to me!
Pamela: It's just this is a clue, isn't it? Yeah. It really is. It's a real clue.
She is really the stage persona, combination (lost for words). Tweaked … yes. Tweaked Pamela; Pamela tweaked. And so it's not Matilda, it's more Pamela needing to learn from Matilda and being encouraged to be naughty from Matilda. Right? It's really about that.
Judith: Yes, and what is she singing? I haven't seen the show yet so I’m coming from a place of ignorance but I was listening to your music on your website and there's a mix there. The one that I really liked was Sucker For a Man With a Horn.
Pamela: Thank you, I wrote that!
Judith: Did you? I didn’t realise.
Pamela: I’m so pleased you like that one!!
Judith: And is that the sort of thing we are expecting to get? Some slow jazz?
Pamela: It’s very eclectic, always very eclectic. Yeah, Rock to Blues to Broadway to Broadway messed around, you know.
I like to put my own arrangements on things. There are several songs that I've made into playlets. Because I just was intrigued by them. One of the songs on there that I did that with, is a song by The Coasters called Youngblood. I don't know if you heard that on the demo, but I made a playlet out of it. Anyway, so I happened to be in Melbourne and I said to my friend Anthony Wong come in and fool around with it, so he did and so I wrote it and I wrote the characters.
I've done that in several songs. So it's sort of that the songs are authentically what they are, but they may be expanded.
Judith: What kind of stuff do you like to sing?
Pamela: I like… I like blues and kind of bluesy stuff. Yeah, but I like to sing and I really love everything.
Judith: Back at the beginning …
Pamela: Good luck with that!! I talk about this in the show, I have a problem with linear things!
Judith: Um! When you first started to realize you could sing … what were you singing?
Pamela: Oh …rock and roll. Definite rock and roll!
Judith: Yeah, that was where I was heading. Singers who influenced you?
Pamela: Well, Tina Turner … greatly.
Judith: Stevie Nicks?
Pamela: Not as much as Tina Turner. And Tom Waits. (laughs) The dark stuff.
In terms of songs styling that wasn't rock and blues and stuff. I guess Lena; a great interpreter.
Judith: I was wondering what backing you have for the show.
Pamela: Piano. Bass. Drums.
Judith: It’s not a very big space is it?
Pamela: No, it’s 80 or something. Intimate, I love that. I've worked many different venues and some have more intimacy than others. And actually the show works. I did it in a 300-seat venue last summer, I guess it was. And that was great in its own way because it had a warmth. I don't love to do it in proscenium theatres that have great size and depth. It doesn't feel like that kind of show.
Judith: You have a substantial acting resume. I suppose you bring that to the songs.
Pamela: Very much. I mean I that's how I started out.
Judith: The thing about your character acting … they go from class to crass. So that being able to take on a persona enhances the performing? You have been able to create quite a character.
Pamela: I love that … title for an album. Class to crass. My forte … yeah, it kind of is. I’ve never really been hired to do a classic mom or nice grandma or something. I don't usually get hired for that, the normal things that I would get hired for are sort of psychotherapist…
Judith: Glamorous wife!
Pamela: Exactly or I get a lot of crazies. Yeah, dark, a lot of devious, a lot of Street, a lot of like John Patrick Shanley stuff. Yeah. Yeah and stuff like that.
Judith: Yeah, and you don't mind looking ugly because the photos that are go with this show… wow she’s a wreck!
(Hilarious laughter from us both here)
Pamela: They don't do me justice, is that what you are saying? I kind of started out not wanting to do cabaret at all, but sort of more performance art kind of a thing. Combination of theatre and cabaret and so I think it's evolved from there. And that's why I say most of my shows before this were much more conceptual and kind of almost multimedia and veering in that direction.
And this one is, is more autobiographical. Yeah. I don't know what the next one will be!
Exhibition on Screen, the pioneering series of gallery and artists films for the cinema, returns for a sixth season from June 2019, featuring three brand new feature films celebrating art masters Degas, Picasso and Van Gogh. I had the opportunity to sit down with Writer, Director and Executive Producer of EOS, Phil Grabsky the day after the media screening of Degas: Passion for Perfection.
Over several cups of coffee in a bookstore, this very generous creative shared insights into the Degas film and the craft behind EOS.
Judith: Last night at the press screening you spoke beforehand and I want to chat about something you said. It was that your films are cinematic and entertaining, the focus is not on education. Yes, Degas: Passion for Perfection is those but it’s also incredibly educational.
Phil: The films are educational; films are educational. If someone came away from a film of mine and hadn’t learned something I’d be disappointed. In fact, I’d say ‘no way’. Even the curators, and it happens time and time again, it’s so sweet they say... ‘I didn’t realise that’ or ‘I saw something in that painting I’ve not seen before.’
Judith: It’s evident after seeing it that’s not the film’s purpose but documentaries have that aura about them.
Phil: The biggest challenge is getting someone into the cinema in the first place. There are, if you like, three enormous mountains to climb with a project like this.
Mountain number one is to make the film. The absolutely essential thing is to make the film as well as you possibly can. Sounds so obvious ... but I want people to watch this in twenty years’ time. They have to have value… legacy value. The world is different now, it’s about the long tail not the hit …about the many, many ways your film can be seen.
Number two, what we have really worked hard on, is to create a network of cinemas that will show your films. What you need are cinemas who are saying ‘when’s the next one coming?’ I could talk about that a lot more but that means that, in Australia, each film that we release, we know, is going into 70 cinemas - internationally 1400 cinemas. It’s a huge amount of work but that brings me to three.
So we’ve made a good film, we got our distribution platform how are we going to get people into the cinema? Now people are still a bit nervous about the idea of being informed; being educated.
But what we have to keep in mind, and it’s a bit of a struggle, is that people have to be entertained. It’s not meant to be hard work. And that takes us back to the absolute core of any film ... it’s about storytelling.
Judith: That’s why the film entranced both myself, with a layperson’s pre-knowledge and my companion who is a practicing artist and teacher.
Phil: So when we set out to make a film about Degas we do have the platform of the exhibition but we discuss ‘what is the story?’ Does what story we want to tell align or diversify from the curators’ story and how do we take the audience from A to B.
Judith: Degas: Passion for Perfection is directed by David Bickerstaff and you are both the writers, how important is the scripting in a film such as this?
Phil: I think that even the most visual film is absolutely all about the written word. And I think that, having done this for a long time and I will continue to do this for a long time, I’m quite happy to go out on limb really and say that most documentaries that I see I think are pretty mediocre. Because they haven’t thought hard enough about the script. And like any book, a script has to be accessible, but you have to feel the intelligence and the research in it. It has to be multi textured and there’s got to be a point.
I see so many documentaries, in fact I get tired of it, where they make one point over and over again.
Judith: I know you have frustrations with incorrect elements in film as well.
Phil: If I see another Van Gogh film portraying him as this drunken madman shot by two scruffy boys in a field of sunflowers... these things are not true! There weren’t fields of sunflowers because they weren’t grown as a crop at that time. So it’s just this basic kind of knowledge and I love that: I love starting with a Mozart and most people think he’s like Amadeus so I’ll go find out for myself.
Start with the letters - they exist. Mozart 850 letters survive; Monet 3300 letters; Degas! So you start piecing together their story. So the first thing is, and I tend to take this straightforward approach most of the time, a biography. A chronology of one life. I try to understand what happened and when.
Judith: And the context?
Phil: You have the allied story of the exhibition, two out of three films that we make are based on an exhibition or use an exhibition as a springboard. So what is their story, who is the curator?
Judith: Is that when you decide on your talking heads?
Phil: Maybe the director of the gallery has something to say, who are their experts? If it’s a shared exhibition with another gallery, who’s the curator of the American gallery or the German gallery or whatever.
Then we will ask people; we’ll ask ‘who should we talk to?’
Now it also depends what we are looking at. If we are preparing a film which is much more about the craft of the painter then who are the contemporary artists to show us how Rembrandt painted, how Vermeer mixed his oils. That’s one route.
Judith: You spoke also about the film you have just directed, Young Picasso.
Phil: There I really wanted to understand the three key cities, Malaga Barcelona Paris. So that’s a slightly different thing. Those are the three key Picasso museums and they have real experts so you want to talk to them.
Judith: I expect timing, availability, has something to do with it?
Phil: You plot when you do the interviews. Sometimes you have no choice... you film the exhibition and that’s when you have the curator standing in front of a painting with some time to talk to you. Other times you do an early interview to get a sense of it. It’s an interview but it’s also research.
But you also wait. The Leonardo film I’m directing at the moment, it’s quite advanced but there are three people I am yet to interview because I want to be quite specific with them. In particular, there’s one world expert who I am interviewing right at the end when I know exactly what I need... the questions I haven’t quite figured out or the gaps in the narrative. Because I’m not going to have a narrator.
Judith: Coming back to our original question about audiences, does that balance inform your editing philosophy?
Phil: Any film is made in the edit. And I have several people in mind but I always think about my brother. My brother is a clever, clever guy but he won’t go to see an art film but whenever he watches one of my films he says, ‘You know what that wasn’t bad’ which from him is a great compliment. So I always think about someone like him ... if I’ve got him in the cinema I don’t want to lose his attention or make him confused. I’m not going to throw art terms, you know, Cubism this and Surrealism that, unless I really need to - then I explain it.
And I am definitely not going to talk down to him because actually because most of us have a superficial understanding of just about everything.
Judith: Degas equals ballet?
Phil: So what I do at the very beginning of a project I think to myself what do I know about Degas and more to the point, I talk to people, ‘what do you know’. With Degas it was really simple ... he was an Impressionist and he painted ballet dancers.
Judith: One last question, this film is superb on the big screen and I think we would both encourage people to see it in the cinema if they can. But what advice would you give the small screen viewer?
Phil: Yes, the films are absolutely made first and foremost for the cinema because they can be seen in high definition. They are shot in ultra-high definition. The cinema definition has increased exponentially in the last decade. But you also have to take into account, like you say, how these films are going to be seen when you buy the DVD or download from our website or from another application.
I have quite a big television at home, we’ve had it for over five years and I am still frustrated by it ... they are overly complicated. We spend an enormous amount of time grading the colour of our films. Cameras do lie and you can get to the edit suite and find that the colour is all wrong.
I’ll give you an example. We did a really nice Matisse film including a very famous painting, ‘The Snail’. We were in post-production and about to go through the process of colour correction. We had the added assistance of the Matisse Estate who want to make sure that every painting is properly represented. So we have ‘The Snail’ up on the screen and we have an expert with us and we realise that the blues have gone green, the oranges have gone red!
We have best quality equipment to get it right. If we hadn’t have done so it would have looked wrong and your TV can be a bit the same. They can have too much chroma, blacks can be too grey. So getting it set up right when you get it out of the box is important.
It should be though, that if you watch one of my films on Amazon Prime, Amazon Prime should deliver it to you in a very good condition. But I can guarantee that if you buy the DVD that’s the best quality you are going to get.
Degas: Passion for Perfection from Exhibition on Screen is opening in cinemas across Australia from 6th June, 2019 and the website has some wonderful images and behind the camera information. I think the blog page is a must for art lovers. Below is my favourite painting in the film … she looks so sad.
Sitting down with dancer and choreographer Ryuichi Fujimura
FORM Dance Projects will be presenting Passing It On, a double bill embodying movement shifts influenced by voices from the past. Ryuichi Fujimura traces back his personal dance history in How I Practice My Religion and unpacks what is archived in his dancing body in double bill with a work named Full Circle, from Ghana-born dancer and choreographer Lucky Lartey.
Ryuichi Fujimura and I met a small Japanese café and even with the calm of our sit down with coffee disturbed by a school letting out nearby, my conversation with this thoughtful and contemplative artist was engrossing and quite intriguing. I asked lots of questions about his life in dance and was surprised by how much he has packed into this autobiographical piece.
Having enjoyed his work over a long time I began by asking about the correct pronunciation of his name. When he told me he was losing it himself, I was completely charmed. My brother in law Mitsuigi says exactly the same thing.
Judith: Do you see your artistic practice as mostly about dance?
Ryuichi: Um ... I see myself as a dancer.
Judith: You do? This work has spoken word in it doesn’t it?
Ryuichi: Yes it does. It starts with a monologue, a five minute monologue before I begin moving but it is 17-18 minutes and the biggest part of the work is dance. However my new work, a trilogy with How Did I Get Here and How I Practice my Religion and is maybe 25 minutes and 15 minutes is monologue. So I am kind of enjoying writing.
Judith: How did this particular outing of the work, as a double bill for FORM Dance Projects come about?
Ryuichi: I have never presented any of my work or been part of a FORM project before. This has been on a long term project, started in 2014: the way I work is creating short solo pieces. And How Did I Get Here was presented as part of Force Majeure and the following year I started on How I Practice my Religion (I take long time to make work he laughs) and then I began on the new work ... and it’s still a work in progress but I think it’s close to it.
So I was happy pitching my idea of a triple bill but they had this work from Lucky and I don’t know the details, but were looking for a double bill and I thought my second one suited Lucky’s work.
Judith: The show is called Passing It On. You are passing on what your body remembers of its dancing life?
Ryuichi: Well when you see my work it will become obvious. When I came to dance I was in my mid-twenties, so for nearly 30 years now I have accumulated a lot of dance. But I have never had formal training like going to college.
Judith: You have had teachers. The dedication of this work is to your first three dance teachers: Margaret Lasica, Caroline English and Anastasi Siotas
Ryuichi: Yes, yes; but I was 26 when I did my first dance class and those teachers were influential. So there was a period of time that I was quite eager to absorb as a student ... going to the classes and trying to do the workshops. Enjoying keeping moving, still do! Though these days I have to be careful, the classes are taught by people half of my age.
Judith: I see. Do you find your work is out of genre?
Ryuichi: Yes. Perhaps (after considerable thought) dance theatre? Because it’s very accessible as a dance piece because dance aficionados is such a small circle I really want to reach outside that.
Judith: Is it actually possible to describe your work?
Ryuichi: Hummm. These three works are autobiographical but if there was anything characteristic... you don’t get to see a man in his fifties dancing on a stage.
Judith: And religion? Is dance your religion? What did you do before dance?
Ryuichi: Yeah. I don’t really talk much about my pre-dance life but I grew up in an ugly industrial town with no art or culture.
Judith: So what were the influences to bring you to dance?
Ryuichi: Well that is all in the work.
Judith: And to write these works are you sitting with pen and paper or on the move?
Ryuichi: (Reflective) I would say I am quite static. This third work has a long monologue and it took me a really long time to refine the script. Once I finish the first draft, I think about again or it suddenly comes to me that there is a better phrase for this section.
Judith: That’s a writerly way to express the creation of a movement work. Then how does the choreography come to it?
Ryuichi: This How I Practice my Religion was kind of easy to choreograph because I literally trace back my dance history. And the action, mostly physical action but also like stretching out as well comes through.
Judith: So what is your audience going to take away?
Ryuichi: That is really the fundamental question of why I want to create it. Ummm, this work was born out of my love for contemporary dance, dance generally, and I wish to bring the audience to an appreciation of a love of dance.
Judith: Last question. Is there anything cultural embedded in this autobiographical work?
Ryuichi: Not in this work, no. But it is about my identity.
Full Circle. Choreographer and Performer Lucky Lartey
From Secret House comes a darkly comic offering and I had the chance to sit in on the Dress Rehearsal.
The next production for Secret House is Joseph K written by Tom Basden and directed by Sean O’Riordan. Inspired by Franz Kafka’s classic novel ‘The Trial’ the play puts bureaucracy in the dock as the character, already distanced from people around him, is slowly disappeared.
Unable to get to see the show early in its run, I was lucky enough to be invited to sit in on a Dress Rehearsal and extra tech run … the new LX board had only just arrived. When I arrived, the lighting designer was gaffing together a riding crop … durable spanking, anyone? His next task was to put up some kind of device for costume changes. As cast wandered across the set to check props ... certificates and phones and boxes … the drilling in of screws large enough to hang coat hangers on began.
It’s an excitable time Dress Rehearsal and everyone mucks in. Especially coming so quickly upon Bump In - which took up all of their weekend. Snatches of dialogue float in from the backstage as the set is examined for marks. It’s a white set, including the floor, with some metallic gridlines and the furniture and props picked out in black for a utilitarian, corporate feel. The costuming follows this colour palette with a thoughtful use of red for contrast. Joseph K’s black and white world is going to get very grey over the course of the show.
All around there’s the usual details in discussion... If you can put that there after the ... Until Ladies and Gentleman this is your five minute call. Silence for a heartbeat until What the hell do you think you are doing? , in practice tones, reverberates toward the seat they have put out specially for me.
The lighting operator is doing a flashthrough and I get to see some lovely secrets hidden in the rig and staging, as Danen Young, who plays Joseph, wanders in costumed up for the opening to do a double check on those certificates. It’s awfully quiet back behind there for such a large cast, 10 by my count. Then a heap of Are you alrights. Still practicing apparently. Laughter echoes.
The rehearsal begins and travels smoothly. Entrances and exits work well to my eye ... not, however, if you listen to the chatter at interval. You bring that and I’ll hand you that then. Only the bottom three are connected so you have to hold the top ones. Red dots and red bows. The arcane and detailed minutia of theatremaking.
And this is a very detailed production. From workman’s boots spattered with paint to black folders hiding secrets there is no element left to chance, everything is in sympathy with the design. It’s impressively seamless despite quite a few scenes coming quickly upon each other. It’s a small space but it doesn’t show as the tightly directed movement from O’Riordan avoids crowding in on Joseph K. His calm life becomes his chaotic life as he is deeper and deeper caught up in a modern, just as frightening, version of Kafka and Young gives an excellent performance here. His work clearly puts decline on the stage and his expression of Joseph’s distance is quite icy at times. There’s a terrific cast around him too with some memorable characters created and a variety of personalities to travel the story.
Engaging, scary and maddeningly possible, Joseph K is already an exciting offering and I would recommend it even based on a dress run. Last night the production photographer was there. There’s some really dark bits she says to the SM and I can’t help but agree. Darkly funny and witty, well-conceived and well-acted this is a show to make you think. And worry!
In sit down session about Normal coming soon to Old 505 Theatre.
There are some actors who I always keep an eye out for. Cecilia Morrow is one of them, so when Cecilia’s name popped up in an intriguing media release about a new play, I wanted to know more.
Normal by Katie Pollock, directed by Anthony Skuse is described as “An urban detective story in which the investigator is a teenage girl and the body is her own. Inspired by the true story of ‘the town that caught Tourette’s’, this play is dark, provocative and theatrically inventive.”
It’s early in rehearsal for a show that doesn’t open until end of May but when I met Cecilia in a Balmain pub for a drink I tried to get a bit more info. Relaxed and with an easy laugh, it was lovely to meet this engaging artist for a wide ranging chat but I’m still not sure what audiences are in for!
Judith: I’m fascinated by the media release. What can you tell me ... I bet it isn’t much?
Cecilia: Nooo can’t tell you much but ... it’s an interesting piece ... a kind of a detective story for the girls. It’s a kind of mystery in that they are trying to figure out what’s going on. Everyone’s trying to figure out what’s going on and it’s also a bit ‘Australian Gothic’. That’s where we have decided it fits!
But it’s very very interesting, very different. It’s not naturalistic. There are elements of ... hard to explain ... let’s just say not naturalistic.
Judith: So are we talking lots of entrances and exits?
Cecilia: Well, working with Skusy, he often likes to work with everyone on stage. We are still at an early point in rehearsals where we are mining the text and looking at discoveries within the text. So, we are still navigating how to make it move and where it sits and where everyone fits in. We each play a couple of characters apart from Alexandra Morgan who plays Poppy.
Judith: Is it 8 characters all together?
Cecilia: Yeah 8 maybe 9. The ninth character is a reporter. (Now there’s a clue in here somewhere if Cecilia’s gesturing has any significance!)
Judith: How are you fitting into the Old 505 stage… one of my favourite venues?
Cecilia: Still figuring that out too. Working with the designer Kelsey Lee. Skusy and us are working with her to see what works. That integration means you don’t just create it and rock up and the design’s on a different level. But I’m thinking it’s going to be quite simple.
Judith: But Anthony has an instinct for that kind of audience information in a piece.
Cecilia: It’s nice the way he likes to have everyone on stage because you are part of it the whole time. He likes to work with actors using their characters just out of the space ... sort of still within it but just off that playing space. So you can watch their journey as well.
Judith: So how did you come to the project?
Cecilia: Well, I saw it coming up and saw Anthony was attached to it and I was Skusy … I want to work with him again. And it being a new play I couldn’t find it to read what the characters were and if I was suited to it. So he said come in and have a read and I did and (big gesture) .
Judith: You work across all mediums between your stage and film and small screen work, how hard is it to be a jobbing actor?
Cecilia: Look sometimes it can be very hard and sometimes things can fall into your lap. Other times it’s hard when you are just trying to make a living as well as being an artist.
But I’ve found that everything I’ve done, I’ve met some wonderful people, and you make connections and that’s the great part. But it is hard … like, I have to have a part time job but I do a lot myself getting theatre and independent work but I have a manager, too, which helps with auditions and screen work and that.
Judith: I noticed on your resume that you do a lot of Shakespeare study and workshops. Given your comedy skills are so evident in the performances I have seen, are you drawn to the dramatic or comedic characters of the canon.
Cecilia: Both really. I remember I went to Drama school going - I’m a comedic actor, that’s what I do! And then working with the most wonderful teachers I figured out - you know what? Maybe I’m a dramatic actor. It strips all that away.
But there’s not a lot of difference between drama and tragedy, they bleed into each other. And if you can put a bit of comedy in drama and drama in comedy it just makes it more real.
Judith: So what made you think growing up that you were a comedic actor then? Class clown?
Cecilia: I was always cracking jokes! But at school I was super quiet ... one school report said … Cecilia should contribute more in class! I am one of four with three brothers and they were always cracking jokes so it was trying to one-up. Get in there and get hurt! So that came easily I guess.
And you can deflect a lot of real things when you are making jokes which is always helpful growing up I think!
Judith: So you are knee deep in rehearsal now, what would you say to potential audiences?
Cecilia: It’s a new Australian work, written by a woman. It looks at a world of teenage girls without the lens of ... mean girls. And it looks at them facing real issues and how they deal with that and then how society and the community views that and deals with that ... or doesn’t deal with that.
Judith: Is that what people will take with them?
Cecilia: It’s interesting. Because, in rehearsal, I have been thinking this play is about everything except what they are taking about: which says something about society and what you don’t talk about. And it does question this idea of normal and what is normal. So different people will take different things from it.
Judith: I’m still not sure what we will experience but it’s not just one for the girls to come and see?
Cecilia: No no . Especially men should come and see because they will see things that they are not necessarily faced with or have experienced. And it is very interesting to bring those things into the room and have men see, kind of, what women do have to deal with go through. But it’s not an exclusive or gendered play being set around those teenage characters, growing up and fitting in and not breaking a mould and why do you have a mould and what’s the point of the mould?
Judith: Curiosity officially piqued!
In an inestimable boost to my street cred, I met Sophie deLightful at The Bourbon in the Cross.
Photo Credit - Richard Heaps
Producer and performer extraordinaire, Sophie deLightful is just passing through her hometown for the second of her curated Babes Ablaze shows. I have watched her work for several years and started our chat by asking about her voice. It’s a rich singing voice, rising but warm in the lower notes and suited beautifully to standards.
Judith: When did you know you had a voice?
Sophie: This is probably going to surprise you, until I was in my late twenties I had massive, massive, stage fright.
I felt like I had a good voice but then I had some embarrassing experiences trying to sing in public in primary school. And I would get more nervous into the song and, as you know, when nerves affect your voice you can’t hide it. Maybe in acting you can maybe disguise it or in most other things you might be able to put on a face. So I just sounded more and more terrible.
So, a bit drunk at a party, my friends would go ‘come on sing something’. With the alcohol in me it was good and they encouraged me. So I entered a karaoke competition locally and won a heat and then again, I totally bombed in the finals. I was terrible, I was so bad.
Wrong song choice maybe? I even had a girl come up and say you did really well, not like that girl who sang Alanis Morissette. I had to say … that was me!
Judith: When I have heard you, I’ve really enjoyed the standards and classics.
Sophie: I try and mix it up a bit. I suppose you mean the older style but the last show you came to I also did a Christina Aguilera, which is kindof its own classic in terms of style ... a modern standard.
Essentially though what I learned from that competition was that I need to sing the right songs for my voice. And when you are a singer it’s almost impossible to nail every song, some are just not right for you. The other day I was singing along to Glory Box by Portishead, just along with the music and thought that might be cool song to cover. Then I tried to sing to the instrumental and ... no good... didn’t work. And I thought if this doesn’t work by myself in the bedroom it’s not going to work on stage!
Judith: I have been in two fires on stage and I’m terrified of it. So when I went to Babes Ablaze, I was giving it five minutes and if I felt off … it was going to be pissoff time. But the safety, excellence and skill you assembled as producer of that show really hit the mark. Have you always had a commitment to excellence?
Sophie: Yeah ... I wouldn’t say I was a perfectionist but I’m a control freak. First show, my network of Sydney fire performers wasn’t as strong as it so now, so I had help creating it. The audience got a great show, some great feedback, but there were things I might have done differently and I hated that loss of control. So for me as a producer, this time around I was quite specific about what I wanted. Like no more than one burlesque or striptease, not too much of that and so on. The idea being - fire fusion acts: not just fire but something else mixed in.
The supportive network of creative people around me know about what I need for various shows and are specifically making those routines and they bring the excellence. My whole life, every time I have done something I have wanted to excel in it. I’ve ended up being an editor or the manager of every single job I have been in.
Judith: Did the producing thing come out of a desire to control your own performances as well?
Sophie: There were a couple of reasons why I got into producing and that was fairly early on in my performing career. Because I would go to shows with quite a critical eye and while there were platforms for younger and emerging artists, as I was once upon a time, to have that experience and those producers don’t care how much experience you have. They might not pay you but will give you a go. But there were a lot of things I didn’t like about them so I thought if you don’t like how other people are doing it, do it yourself. And so I don’t have anyone else to blame if I put on a bad show.
I don’t think I ever have put on a bad show but there degrees of happiness I have within my shows but happy with the output. And people always want to work with me again.
Judith: And your hosting? Your skills are pretty damn good. Do you think it’s innate or can people learn it!
Sophie: Umm. A bit of both. I’ve always found that I can command a room if I need to and I seem to have the quick wit you need sometimes. And the confidence and the understanding that if you fuck up it’s ok. You’re human ... it’s ok!
One is the reasons I push myself to be a better host, and to be available as a host, is because we need more opportunities for female hosts, emcees that people believe in. I’ve been to workshops so I know there are tricks of the trade and you have got to believe in what you are doing. Not everyone has to be a ballsy, confident loudmouth host, I’ve seen hosts who are quite nervous and they’re quite funny. They’re endearing and engaging in their own way.
Judith: So what’s next for you?
Sophie: The circus tour I went on in New Zealand … I have committed to producing that in Australia. So I am working on an East Coast tour. It’s like a community circus and we will be Mackay to Adelaide, about 5 weeks.
All the grant funding applications are happening. We are going to a lot of regional towns and offering workshops to communities like special needs, disengaged youth, indigenous youth and even some elderly organizations. So a lot of research and it’s been pretty encouraging and inspiring so far, even if I don’t get the funding, we will figure out an alternative, just to realize that I can take this group of really talented circus performers to inspire and change lives.
Small Mouth Sounds
Hashtag absolutelycharmingtointerview, Sharon Millerchip took a break from rehearsal to sit-down and answer some questions about Small Mouth Sounds, next up at Darlinghurst Theatre Company.
A three time Helpmann Award winner, Sharon Millerchip is currently on stage in the Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race with fellow Small Mouth Sounds castmate Amber McMahon. I began by saying how I was texting to friends after that show … buy, buy now. The production sold out almost immediately.
Judith: You’d be up for a National Tour surely?
Sharon: Sure. Leave the kids at home and hit the road with the girls!
Judith: I’ll look forward to that. But for the moment, who do you play in Small Mouth Sounds?
Sharon: I play Joan, who is one half of a couple with Judy (Jane Phegan) and we, like all the other characters I guess, have come with our innate trauma and drama that we are trying to excavate through the process of this wellness retreat. (We were unable to decide if the rest of this answer was spoilers so Sharon simplified it down to ...) They are facing big challenges.
So I think, personally, that Joan is looking for some kind of fortification. Spiritually, emotionally, mentally to make the challenging journey ahead.
Judith: So that was sort of my next question ... sounds like seeking rather than being broken?
Sharon: Seeking, yes, and it’s hard to say that anyone is completely broken but she’s fractured. Which makes her more vulnerable when she’s facing such big challenges.
Judith: It’s a lifeline question: what brought you here? Why is Joan there?
Sharon: So when I say she’s fortified, she’s looking for some exterior courage. And, of course, one of the first things she hears is - I cannot heal you, perhaps you are the teacher, everything you have to heal you is within you. Argh, I don’t want to hear that; that seems to be much too much hard work.
She’s a therapist herself. A sex therapist and she counsels couples and teaches sex education in high schools. We were just talking about that actually. A lot of practitioners in that regard are quite vulnerable themselves and possibly self-aware of fallibility.
Judith: If she has these tools what is she lacking here?
Sharon: … It might be that she might not be able to stick it out. And she knows that about herself. And if ever that is called into play she is challenged by it. Possibly not good at being there when you need her the most! These characters are so interesting and challenging to get across.
Judith: Given the subject matter and the cast involved, is the rehearsal room crazy or contemplative?
Sharon: A little bit of both actually and I would say I have laughed so hard during these rehearsals that I have given myself a cramp in my side. Having said that, because so much of what we are doing is internal, it’s quite challenging to tell that story. How do I communicate that with no words? So you actually find that every part of your body is engaged in the storytelling and you really get no shortcuts in terms of dialogue. So sometimes it can be quite tense in the rehearsal room, actually, when everyone is in their own, sort of, cone of intensity. All the while trying to stay connected with each other. There is quite a lot of work to be done so we do get quite serious in that regard too.
I’m making it sound like it’s a very intense story, perhaps. But bit of both! How it succeeds is there’s such a beautiful lightness through it, as well as this delicious comedy woven around it.
Judith: Last question. Is seeing a good comedy as good as going to a retreat?
Sharon: I truly think that seeing this show will ask the audience to ask questions, just as we are asking them on the stage, and even if they don’t question they may leave with a smile on their lips and that is just as therapeutic.
Rehearsal photos of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company production by Robert Catto.
Small Mouth Sounds
Meeting Justin Smith in sit-down session helped heal the residual trauma of one of his previous performances.
Justin Smith’s performance in Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam was so haunting that sit-down time was spent in a quick debrief that I really needed: completely shattered by his performance in that play. It turns out Justin’s wife was the same. Having worked a couple of days on Long Forgotten Dream and seen Justin’s rich preparation and focus at close quarters, his thoughtful answers to my eventual questions came as no surprise.
Judith: Who do you play in Small Mouth Sounds?
Justin: I play Jan. Jan is from Finland and he is a Lutheran pastor. It’s hard because there are things you want to audience to discover. Particularly with him.
Judith: Can you tell us if he is broken or seeking?
Justin: Both! He’s broken but he’s optimistic that he will work his stuff out in time. I think.
It’s difficult with a play that has no dialogue to extract. You normally write down everything that people say about you and what you say about yourself and you stitch that together to make a person. But there are obviously little clues along the line.
Judith: It’s a lifeline question: what brought you here? Why is Jan there?
Justin: Well, everyone is damaged in the play and he is damaged in a way that the audience finds out about half way through. But also, apart from that, he’s on a pastoral sabbatical to explore spirituality and gain tools from various philosophies and be able to take them back.
Judith: What tools does he think he lacks for this exploration?
Justin: It’s a good question for him. Um... I think he’s got existential questions and he’s damaged in a way that needs him to work out how to deal with himself. And then he will be able to help other people as well.
Judith: And his relationship with God I suppose?
Justin: Yeah, I think so. But I think he is more in it for the humanity. Obviously he’s in a church that believes and everything that goes with it. They are quite progressive though.
Judith: Given all this soul searching that Jan is going through, is the rehearsal room crazy or contemplative for you?
Justin: Oh it’s pretty crazy. More crazy than the other because it’s also, aside from all I have just said, really funny and quirky and kind of strange. There’s these nutbags bouncing off each other trying to work out what’s going on.
Judith: Last question. Is seeing a good comedy as good as going to a retreat
Justin: Yeah of course! Any theatre I think. Anything to do with the human condition that involves laughter... that unlocks you even more doesn’t it? The best theatre is when you get the laughter and then you get the pathos sneak through the cracks that have opened up.
Small Mouth Sounds
Veteran actor, Jane Phegan sits down to chat as she prepares for her first appearance on the Eternity Stage for Darlinghust Theatre Company.
Jane Phegan is one my favourite performers. She was thrilling in Good with Maps for Siren Theatre Co where her open hearted solo performance was mesmerising. And I have followed her fannishly from Lost Boys in Wollongong to Letters to Lindy at Penrith as part of the national tour. Jane had been rehearsing an intense scene when I arrived but was very gracious in spending some of her precious break time with me.
Judith: Who do you play in Small Mouth Sounds?
Jane: I play Judy, the partner of Joan (Sharon Millerchip). And Judy comes to the retreat primarily because it’s something that appeals to Joan.
Judith: Is she broken or seeking?
Jane: (whispering) Everybody is! You know what I mean? So despite the fact that she’s been brought along, yes we all exist with problems … for want of a better word.
Judith: It’s a lifeline question: what brought you here? Why is Judy there? Is it love?
Jane: Yes, absolutely. Her absolute love for her partner,Joan, and she has come because this is something Joan would love to do. I think Judy is somewhat, somewhat... reticent about this kind of thing.
Though they met at some kind of … she did get into meditation for a while, our Judy, but she has sort of let that slide. She doesn’t work in that field whereas Joan does and is much more open to this kind of thing.
Judith: So what tools is she lacking to be able to fully engage if she was so reticent to go?
Jane: That’s a good question … did you ask everyone that question?
Judith: I did actually and have had a range of response!
Jane: Tools does she lack ??
I think … the ability to go with the flow. She’s a bit of a control freak actually, she likes, um, control. So she questions this kind of openness and kind of find-your-way, and be open to feeling everything and all of that. No, no, no. Let’s just get on with it! That’s our Judy.
She can have a lot of fun but she probably doesn’t want to dig that deep. That’s probably the best way of saying it. I don’t want to know the ins and outs, these are the facts. Let’s just get to it … is probably the simple answer to your question.
Judith: Given the subject matter and the cast involved, is the rehearsal room crazy or contemplative?
Jane: Hah! Both! It really is because, you know what, we have so much fun because at times it’s completely crazy as we try some different things. But just then Sharon and I had a big scene which we were trying to mine for truth and what the hell is going on in this. So that becomes very contemplative and difficult as you do the work to grasp what is going on.
Judith: That process is mysterious isn’t it, even for someone of your experience?
Jane: Totally mysterious. I have worked with Justin before, Yalin and I have done workshops and I knew Jo but haven’t worked with him. And I didn’t know the others. So every process is different because the beast is different. Not just the play but the people at play and whose vision and the way they direct and everybody’s process that they bring and how does it all come together? It’s joyous that.
Judith: So true. Last question. Is seeing a good comedy as good as going to a retreat
Jane: I’m going to say … Yes! Especially if that comedy has all the depth of heart of great comedy … so I’m going to say Yes. Though I love a good retreat!
Small Mouth Sounds
Sitting down with Yalin Ozucelik was a such a treat after seeing his wonderful work over many years.
Rehearsal photos of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company production by Robert Catto.
While we had worked on the same production, 1984, a few years ago, I don’t remember Yalin Ozucelik and I ever having time for more than a bleary nod at the coffee machine. However, he has been on my wish list to interview since I was mesmerised by his work in Dresden. Having spoken about him with Dresden’s writer, Justin Fleming and The Caretaker co-director Nicholas Papademetriou, to sit down with Yalin was an absolute treat.
Judith: Who do you play in Small Mouth Sounds?
Yalin: I play Ned. Ned is, well, there’s a lot that Ned says about himself in the play. In fact he’s probably the character that has the most to actually say on stage. There’s a lot of the play where the characters don’t actually speak at all, but Ned does have his moment. He goes into some detail about his life, which has sadly been beset by tragedy after tragedy and that is what has lead him to this guru. And to this retreat that he has managed to save up enough to attend.
Judith: So, is he broken or is he seeking?
Yalin: Um, a bit of both, I think he is both broken and seeking! He’s very much broken, I think, but very much looking for an answer to help him find peace.
Judith: It’s a lifeline question: what brought you here? Why is Ned there?
Yalin: Without giving too much away because we want people to discover him as they watch the play, one of the last things I suppose is that his parents passed away and he became an alcoholic for a period of time. He managed to sober up but he carries a great deal of resentment and anger towards his ex-wife … (and lots of spoilers were shared here that I am not telling!). So he is interested in letting out his frustration and anger but he decides there must be a better way.
Judith: So much has happened to him; what tools is he lacking to be able to deal with his circumstances?
Yalin: I think it’s that …(thinking). So … he started working for a not-for-profit environmental organization and that’s made him very aware of the state of the world and I think he is trying to find a way to reconcile, what he considers to be, insurmountable future problems with this sense of coming to be at peace and at ease with himself and the world around him. To him there’s a lot to be concerned about and he’s wondering; concerned that he isn’t enlightened enough, perhaps, to discover the truth about the world and how to come to terms with the world.
Judith: Given the subject matter and the cast involved, is the rehearsal room crazy or contemplative?
Yalin: Well, it’s a great mix of both … as is the play. A mixture of all those tiny little moments that make us very human in terms of our vulnerabilities and weakness but also with that madcap craziness that can brighten our lives. It’s got a great mix of those things.
Judith: Last question. Is seeing a good comedy as good as going to a retreat?
Yalin: (Big laugh) Definitely!
Small Mouth Sounds
As we continue our series of sit-downs with the cast of the next show at Darlinghurst Theatre Co, Amber McMahon shares some of her irrepressible energy.
Rehearsal photos of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company production by Robert Catto.
Amber McMahon is hilarious playing Nikki in The Appleton Ladies Potato Race at the moment. This two time Helpmann Award winning performer has some serious moves in that show … and at the same time as she is rehearsing for Small Mouth Sounds. It’s different week to week, she says, and she has to be really on the ball about matinees and early calls for live feeds, Q & A’s after, evening performances and the list goes on. Amber appears to have enormous energy, so it was great fun to tap into that for a few minutes to ask some questions.
Judith: Who do you play in Small Mouth Sounds?
Amber: I play Alicia. And she’s kind of distraught. We can’t give too much away about the characters because it’s a silent retreat so there are reveals throughout the play. And also … you might not get that information depending on what you are watching at any point.
I can say she’s distraught over a really bad break-up with her partner, Fred. And she can’t get Fred off her mind and so she’s here to quieten her thoughts, I think. But sometimes that can be a bit of an echo chamber.
Judith: Is she broken or seeking?
Amber: I think she is both actually. Yeah, I think … she’s a bit damaged. She’s had an unhealthy relationship with men, and her identity and how she values herself and this is like the breaking point and she needs to rebuilt and reinvent and come up with a different value system.
Judith: It’s a lifeline question: what brought you here? Why is Alicia there? Is it the break-up?
Amber: Yes very much so. She’s properly devastated by this break-up and it’s humiliating and she feels shame as well. But she is quite faddish and so friends and this counsellor have recommended this silent retreat and she doesn’t know much about this kind of thing and she’s never meditated before. So she’s in a living hell!
Judith: So what tools is she lacking to be able to deal with her circumstances?
Amber: I would say … bravery … self-respect … patience … discipline.
Amber: It’s a bit of both but I have to say the spirit of invention is pretty intoxicating. So, often it’s really kind of boisterous.
Judith: Because I’m going to ask Jo who is the most difficult to control!
Voice from the kitchen: It’s her!!
Amber: I was going to say… (Much laughter)
Judith: Last question. Is seeing a good comedy as good as going to a retreat?
Amber: I think the silent retreat version is better because you have got the space to interpret wildly. So some people could perceive something as totally tragic and others could see it as utterly hilarious and it has a beautiful space to it.
Small Mouth Sounds
A sit-down with Dorje Swallow, one of the six cast currently rehearsing the transcendent play by Bess Wohl.
Rehearsal photos of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company production by Robert Catto.
Dorje Swallow is one of those actors from whom I always expect nuanced and subtle work. Like his period characters in Dresden or the lyrical and intimate Hakawati. As I was asking the cast all the same questions, I started with the most logical.
Judith: Who do you play in Small Mouth Sounds?
Dorje: I play Rodney. He is a yoga teacher on the retreat.
Judith: It’s a lifeline question: what brought you here? Why is Rodney there?
Dorje: I don’t want to give too much away, but one of the key features of everyone who’s come to this retreat is they are all processing some kind of pain or trauma. And in my experience of spiritual retreats or spiritual quests, people are trying to work through some things internally: hence the looking for answers from external forces.
So he, like everyone else on the retreat, is processing internal stuff which he wants to work on.
Judith: Is he only seeking? Or is he broken as well?
Dorje: Look, one’s level of self-perception, I guess, is always open to interpretation from people on the outside. Where you think your journey is compared to where people think your journey is at! But he definitely has the feeling that things are not where they should be, I’ll go that far. In terms of broken, I wouldn’t say that but there’s definitely a momentum heading towards a point of no return.
Judith: So what tools is he lacking to be able to deal with his circumstances?
Dorje: Oh, himself!
I feel like one of the major problems that he has is that the tools at his disposal are also leading him towards some of the issues he is having. For example, I will let loose that he has had a habit of romantically intertwining himself with his students, as a yoga teacher. (Not a spoiler, Dorje tells me)
So if your tools of spiritual awakening involve you being surrounded by some of the temptations which are leading you down the garden path then obviously it becomes a bit problematic.
Dorje: (Laughing) It oscillates between the two. ‘Oscillates Wildly’ to quote that restaurant in Newtown. It goes from those moments of contemplation to moments of absolute lunacy. And there’s real beat changes and gear changes and one thing we have been playing with is even element changes. Like fire to water to air. There’s distinct changes so I wouldn’t say the room is existing in one place, cause we don’t really exist in one place do we?
Judith: I’m going to ask Jo who the most difficult is … are you good at the quiet?
Dorje: Probably not, no. Which is why this is such a great challenge, friends often say I wouldn’t go well at a silent retreat!
It’s good because this is a room of very experienced actors and we all want to hear everyone’s ideas, we know the majority is going to be pretty great. So it’s a case of allowing everyone to contribute but also to have enough space to get the work done.
Judith: Last question. Is seeing a good comedy as good as going to a retreat?
Dorje: Ooo. I think the thing with this play, it’s a comedy until it isn’t. It’s really funny as it heads to more spiritual, contemplative places. I think good comedy is about observing life and saying the truth about things, the audacity to point out the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes is a lot of comedy.
So I think there is a fine line between the two but I also think there are lots of funny things that happen at a silent retreat. I have one friend who has gone to two and he has ended up romantically intertwining with a person at each one. It’s not quite Carry On Camping but there’s stuff that goes on at retreats!
Small Mouth Sounds
Director Jo Turner calls his cast a “group of such open, playful, skilful, creative, delightful people.” And so they are.
Rehearsal photos of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company production by Robert Catto.
Turner is talking about Amber McMahon, Sharon Millerchip, Yalin Ozucelik, Jane Phegan, Justin Smith & Dorje Swallow who, in Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl, play 6 characters at a silent retreat . I had the opportunity to sit down with each and then to have a chat with the writer, dramaturg and actor and, in this case, director. Turner is a graduate of Melbourne University and the Ecole Jacques Lecoq.
They are a lively bunch, so I began with a practical question for this vibrant director of previous Darlinghurst Theatre Company hit shows DeathTrap and The Hypochondriac.
Judith: They are a wicked group, so … spill. Who is the hardest to control in the rehearsal room?
Jo: Well. Really … you want actors to surprize you so if you control them too much, they don’t feel free to show you stuff. I think like anything, if you set really strong boundaries that’s great and they feel free to break those boundaries.
The honest answer is there’s no-one I’m finding more difficult to control than anyone else. In fact, I like it when they are out of control.
Judith: So, the need for silence? Have you got any corpsers in the room?
Jo: No, no corpsers at this stage. Actually it’s fascinating … we’ve just rehearsed a scene which has quite a few words in it. It happens later on in the play and it’s amazing how little we can trust the words which are being said in the scene. Which is fascinating for me.
So we took a much a longer time to rehearse that scene, which is full of words, than we have for any of the other scenes without words. It took three times as long some of the other scenes. Nothing to do with the actors or anything like that: it is when people talk, you don’t know what they are saying. ‘Cause there’s a subtext that is going on.
A lot of the silent work in the play, the subtext is easier to read because people don’t have words to cover up their true intentions. I trained at La Coq which explores that territory a lot. It’s based in the body, and the body tells stories more honestly than words do and at that school you spend the first six months in silence really, while you work out: why would people talk, what’s the motivation for speaking and what do words really do as they tend to cover up our true intentions most of the time. In good writing they do that anyway.
Judith: So with Small Mouth Sounds how is it written down? How do you lift it off the page?
Jo: It’s written very, very precisely and specifically through stage directions … for each of the characters. And what we are discovering, and this is new to me, is that it is actually a beautifully written play, it’s incredibly well structured. So we are making all those discoveries that you make with a normal written play and you go - oh my God I didn’t realise that’s what that stage direction meant!
So, something as simple as ‘she sits’ rather than ‘she decides to sit down’ or ‘is sitting’. They are very precise in their meaning and they tend to open up a whole world for the character. So it’s written via stage directions really. And when we stick to the precision of her descriptions, that’s when it all starts to make sense and we know what’s going on. So there’s no room to be vague with it. We are improvising in and around various moments but it’s a properly constructed well written play.
Judith: Does it have a circularity … like therapy strives for?
Jo: Yeah, there is a sense of that. I don’t think we get to the release by the end, so it doesn’t come full circle but, certainly, you see people arrive looking for something to happen. And they transform or start to transform in ways. Some get more down the track than others some are still a long way away from it.
They each have their own individual journey and none of them really feel like they’re healed by the end of it (not a spoiler Jo tells me … they are only there for three days). It feels like they have opened up doors and some are further through that path than others.
But there is a lovely elemental thing that feeds through the play, and it seems deliberate. She doesn’t talk about it but there seems to be this notion of Earth, Air and Fire through the piece and the transformational elements are like alchemy. Mix the three and you end up with gold and all these characters are trying to make themselves into a better human being – a golder, shiner human being. And the very last scene of the play does revolve around fire and the idea of renewal.
Judith: Thank you so much for taking time out of your lunch break. One last question. I have put the same question to your cast … Is seeing a good comedy as good as going to a retreat?
Jo: Definitely! Because good comedy teaches us about ourselves. And so, not only do you get the release, and we have all read how much is written about how laughter is good for the soul and your health. But a good comedy makes you think as well. Get both of those and you feel better.