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.