Sunday, October 25, 2009

The week that was #6

Blasts from the past

I’ve found a couple of my old diaries – written in longhand on paper1. I’ve been browsing through 1997 to see if there’s anything worth recounting, but it’s looking more and more like I just wrote down the literal events of the day (including mentioning the obscene number of punctures I was getting from riding my bike all the time, and the names of any vaguely attractive women I met – most of whom I now cannot remember at all) rather than using it as a repository for my philosophy or social commentary

A lot of it is poorly written; to say that my writing has improved since then would be an understatement. I seem to have an unreasonably fondness for the word ‘cool’ – which is kind of sad, considering I was twenty-three and not fourteen...

But, having read through a few entries I was a bit shocked to realise how unhappy I sound. Here’s the entry for Monday, January 6:

'I am starting to realise that I am liking less the people I associate with. I think that when the lease expires on Burdekin St I will go and live by myself and attempt to meet new people, and leave much of my past behind me.'

That’s pretty harsh2. My friends at the time – at least some of whom are, technically, still my friends; they just happen to live in other states – were just doing exactly what I was doing at the time, and what most people were doing in that situation: trying to find themselves after finishing university.

My own search wasn’t coming with anything – well, not anything I was glad to have discovered. I’d spent five years (total) at uni and, while I’d finished my degree3, it didn’t provide me with a specific course of action – or an obvious career path. I had no interest in counselling4 – which would have meant more uni anyway – so it was a case of trying to find something which could make use of my degree rather than something specific to it.

I’d realised that something wasn’t quite right – but I’d come to the wrong conclusion about what the problem was. However, it wasn’t too long after this that I put my feet on the path to leaving Townsville – and the path that led me to Adelaide and a much more contented existence.

But it wasn’t all bad, and some of it was at least pop-culture commentary – as illustrated on Saturday January 25:

'During the ad’s5 I flicked to Rage to look at (hideous) old Countdown episodes. Ewww! How the hell did anyone get conceived in the late 70’s/early 80’s? Everyone was so ugly! I won’t even start on the music – that’s just a nightmare.'

Good times.

1My hand hurts just thinking about it. How did I live before I owned a PC?
2And not just because of the poor sentence structure. Gah.
3Bachelor of Psychology. It took me five years because I failed a subject in second semester of third year and they didn’t let you overload to do fourth year. I had to go part time and spread it out over two years instead.
4That shouldn’t come as a shock for those who know me even slightly.
5It appears that at that point in my life I didn’t know what an apostrophe was for.

Arsenic & Old Lace

As many of you will know, I’m currently involved in a production of a play called Arsenic & Old Lace. We’ve just finished the first week of shows and I now have four nights off before having to get back up on stage and do it all again.

Without giving too much away – because there’s a certain element of mystery involved in the plot – it’s a black comedy/farce about the Brewsters, a family of eccentrics living in Brooklyn, New York in 1941. There are two aunts – Abby and Martha – who are elderly spinsters; and their nephew Teddy, who believes he is another Teddy – Teddy Roosevelt6. There’s also their other nephew, Mortimer, a theatre critic who lives in New York and drops by occasionally; Elaine Harper, the girl next door who is also Mortimer’s fiancee, and her father, Reverend Harper; then there’s a handful of less-than-gifted members of the Brooklyn police department who are also regular visitors.

After Mortimer discovers his aunts’ terrible secret he’s forced to try and work out a way to keep anyone from finding out what they’ve done – but before he can, his long-lost brother Jonathan returns after a twenty-year absence, bringing with him not only a new face (eerily similar to that of actor Boris Karloff) but the plastic surgeon who gave it to him.

The result is an hilarious black comedy with some wacky characters and laugh-out-loud funny scenes.

Anyway, I play the creepy brother, Jonathan – and I’m having an absolute ball doing it; it’s so unlike anything else I’ve ever done on stage before. The significant parts I’ve played include a Shakespearean cross-dressing nitwit (Francis Flute in A Midsummer Night’s Dream); a shy nitwit (Cornelius Hackl in The Matchmaker); a well-to-do love-rat with a secret (Frank Churchill in Emma); an angry film producer (Karl Brezner in Popcorn); a vindictive and opportunistic Puritan landowner (Thomas Putnam in The Crucible); a clueless, hotheaded romantic (Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing); a nerdy, bespectacled wizard (Ponder Stibbons in Lords & Ladies) and a very snooty butler (Charles in Me & My Girl).

Most of these are comic roles; I tend to stay away from serious roles since I don’t feel I’m very good as a serious actor. There are several reasons for this - one being that I have what can politely be termed a good face for comedy7; another being that, while I have no problem with the intellectual grasp of the nuance and emotion required for a serious role, I don’t seem to cope well with translating that to my body - and that's a huge aspect of acting; the dialogue is only one part of it.

I’m really much more at home with comedy. That’s not to say I won’t ever take a serious role, but I’d hate to have the success of a show depending on my ability as a dramatic actor.

Jonathan in A&OL isn’t exactly a dramatic role since – despite its darkness – it is still a comedy. But Jonathan is very much a ‘straight’ role in the sense that most of the comedy is done by those around him. He is a (very stark) contrast to the wackiness of the other characters, particularly his plastic surgeon sidekick and the two dotty aunts.

Playing straight is actually a huge challenge for me because one of the things that makes me a good comic actor is my instinct for seeking out laughs. In my comedy roles I’ve always worked with the director to find as many things as possible – above and beyond what’s in the script – that’ll get more laughs. In order to the play the straight role I’m forced to fight against the almost instinctive tendency to attempt to maximise the humour in my performance.

But it’s working. I’m playing Jonathan in such a way that people are genuinely being creeped out by him, and that’s a great feeling – as weird as that might sound. But, think of it this way: for me, making people laugh is easy. This was a challenge, and one I’ve risen to meet.

6Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, October 27, 1858 – January 6, 1919; 26th President of the United States and man for whom the Teddy Bear is named. He was also the uncle of Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd President.
7By which I mean I’m funny-looking.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The week that was #5

Facebook Voodoo

On Friday last week the two of the people who sit near me at work (diagonally, I guess; it’s hard to show without a map) were away – leaving me bereft of conversation. After half a day of having my many witticisms go unheard and lacking the necessary straight lines I desperately need to prompt my snarky one-liners, I was rather frustrated. So, at lunch time I logged onto Facebook and changed my status update to the following:

Jamie Wright has logged on specifically to curse (Shakespeare style) the two co-workers who sit adjacent to him in the cube farm; they've conspired to have today off, leaving him bereft of conversation. So, to R & J: a plague on both your houses!

‘A plague on both your houses!’ - I love that line1. But it’s not all that often that two people bug me at the same time to give me the opportunity to use it.

Anyway, imagine my surprise on Monday when one (R) was at home sick and the other (J) complained about all the stuff that had gone wrong – computer problems, utility problems and so forth. When R got back it turned out that she had had a crap weekend also – being sick, being stuck with sick flatmates, and a whole bunch of other mostly-minor-but-when-all-put-together-kind-of-annoying things.

So, I spent most of Monday apologising profusely to one, and then most of Tuesday doing the same to the other. I had the blame for every tiny thing that went wrong in their lives – some of which even occurred before I wrote the status update - laid at my feet.

The lesson? Don’t curse people2 via Faceook! It’s too powerful!

1If you’re wondering it’s Mercutio, from Romeo & Juliet – Act 3, Scene 1.
2Important note: I don’t actually believe cursing actually ‘works’ in any sense of the word. But it’s still funny.


Warning – may contain minor spoilers.

I hadn’t been to the movies in a few weeks but managed to fit in seeing Up (in 3D) this week. And I’m glad that I did; it was brilliant, one of the best films – animated or otherwise – I’ve seen this year3.

The plot is (roughly) this: a grumpy old man attaches balloons to his house and floats away; a slightly goofy kid in a uniform stows away and goes with him; they wind up in a strange-looking place with a talking dog and a huge iridescent bird. There is, obviously, much more to it than that, but that’s the bare bones – and, more significantly, all I knew about it beforehand.

Yes, it’s an animated film, aimed at a younger audience. But to think that that means there’s nothing in it for adults would be a foolish mistake. It’s got some of the best-written and most emotionally moving scenes of nearly any film I’ve ever seen. One of the scenes I’m talking about features absolutely no dialogue whatsoever; it’s just a montage of short pieces put together with music – and yet I rate it as one of the most touching and genuine pieces of cinema I’ve experienced.

Let’s put it this way: I’m far from sentimental; the terms ‘unemotional’, ‘cynical’ and ‘cold, miserable bastard’ would be far more likely to be used to describe me. For something in a movie to be both meaningful and able to get past my high saccharine intolerance is an impressive feat4.

It’s not, of course, a movie about melancholy – it’s about the very opposite: embracing life and living every moment you’ve got. And it’s very, very funny. The voice acting is superb and the dialogue, particularly that of the talking dogs, is brilliant. The ability of animators to imbue their on-screen creations with a depth of expression is about as good as it can get – a scene where one of the characters is scraped along the glass window of a zeppelin while another watches with an incredulous expression had me nearly on the floor.

And, as should be the case, the serious and the funny are mixed together in such a way as to give you that emotional rollercoaster ride that’s expected of such a film.

My only regret now is that I waited so long to see it – as a result I can’t get the satisfaction of knowing that I sent a lot of people along to see what I suspect is a movie they would really enjoy.

If you can find somewhere that’s still showing it, go see it. In 3D if possible.

3Bear in mind, though, that this is the same year I saw Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – arguably one of the worst pieces of cinematic crap I’ve ever had the misfortune to spend time, money and a great deal of loathing on.
4Off the top of my head there are two others which have/had a similar effect on me: The Princess Bride and Big Fish. There may be some others, but those are the ones that come to mind - although the emotional trigger in those two films are along similar lines, and it's not what affected me in Up.


On Saturday last week I went to review Unseen Theatre Company’s The Last Continent at the Bakehouse theatre; the write-up can be found on the ATG site here. As you’ll see when (if) you read it, I wasn’t that impressed; it wasn't very good theatre (even by amateur standards) and I had to say so.

Which, despite what people might like to think about theatre critics in general (and me in particular), is not a pleasant thing to have to do.

I know what it’s like. I’ve been involved – on some level - in more than twenty shows over the last seven years, and there’s nothing more demoralising than to find out, after having spent months rehearsing (and, if you’re involved on a committee level, several additional months prior to that choosing, planning, organising and casting), that everything you’ve worked for has fallen short of expectations.

Reviewers giving bad reviews are often castigated by dissatisfied casts, production crew and/or directors, most often for ‘missing the point’. Which, to be honest, can happen. I don’t know if that’s been said (and been accurate) about me in the case of any of those shows I’ve given poor reviews to; I’d like to think that is hasn’t and never will, but I imagine that it will have to happen at least once, eventually5.

On the whole, of course, I prefer to see shows that I don’t have to kick around. Fingers crossed it's a while before I have to sink the boot into another show.

5Though, short of someone being incensed enough to send me hate mail, I probably won’t ever actually know if someone feels I’ve missed the point.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The week fortnight that was #4

Okay, since I didn’t get a post up last weekend but still want to discuss things that happened in that week, I’m going to make this a rare ‘The fortnight that was’ to cover both. I think I’m going to stop apologising for writing less than I’d like to because I’m busy – since I seem to write it every week. Maybe when (if!) I’m not busy I’ll preface a long and involved post with ‘I’ve had plenty of time so this is really long’.

Crazy times

I was very busy in the first week of the fortnight – I know I say that a lot, but that week was even more frenetic than my usual level of busy-ness.

Monday night I was up in the hills trying on costumes for Arsenic and Old Lace; Tuesday and Thursday was rehearsal for Arsenic and Old Lace; Wednesday Friday and Saturday nights – and Saturday afternoon - was crewing for Jesus Christ Superstar. After the show finished on Saturday night we then bumped out1 of the theatre and took everything to the Marie Clark shed at Golden Grove, and then went to the cast party – at which I stayed until 4.
Which, thanks to the change to Daylight Savings time, meant 5. And me with rehearsal at 1pm Sunday – and, more importantly (as it turned out) the inability to sleep past 11.

Despite that, though, I did find a few things to write about.

1That’s a technical theatre term for when we move everything out of the theatre. Moving everything into the theatre is a called bump in – funnily enough.

Cast Parties

Well, it seems logical considering I’ve just been to one.

It’s traditional for the cast and crew to have a party of some sort on the final night of the show. Depending on the company – and the cast – there are sometimes parties on other nights, including after any show on a Saturday. Particularly if there isn’t a show on Sunday. Since I haven’t done any shows that run over three weekends I’m not 100% sure on what happens there but I’m going to assume each Saturday has its own party.

Now, these can sometimes be quiet, sedate affairs with a few glasses of wine and maybe a wedge of brie and some sensible crackers. Or, on the other hand, they can be wild, noisy drunken affairs where chaos and debauchery ensue.

I far prefer the latter to the former – and will probably continue to do so until I’m old enough to suffer too much from the ill-effects of too much alcohol and too little sleep.

Final night cast parties are often complicated by the fact that the show has to be bumped out (if you’ve been paying attention you’ll know what this means) first – i.e. there’s usually a bit of work to be done before the party can start. Sometimes this doesn’t take very long (depending on the circumstances) but most of the time it involves a fair bit of deconstruction, heavy lifting and shed-packing – since most theatre hires require you to be out that night; the next production is generally bumping in the next day and they can’t do that if your stuff is still in the way.

Some theatre companies have the crew take care of this while the cast go off and party, but I don’t really agree with that – unless it’s the kind of set where unskilled people are just going to get in the way and make everything take longer. But that doesn’t happen very often with the companies I work with these days – everyone pitches in to some degree, and there are at least a few cast members there at the very end, shoehorning flats and trucks3 and other random crap into a shed in the middle of nowhere.

Anyway, technicalities of bump-out aside, cast parties can be – and, in my opinion, should always be - lots of fun. From my recollection, most of those that I’ve had have been good; only a small number haven’t. And there’ve been some amazing ones – literally still going well into the next morning (though you have to take into account that they starts either after a show or after a show plus anything from 1-3 hours of bump-out – so maybe 11pm at the earliest and maybe 2am at the latest) with people dancing, singing karaoke, or just sitting around, drinking and chatting.

The latest I’ve left a cast party was about midday the next day – the couple of us who were still left got kicked out because the host’s family had started to show up for their weekly lunch. But that’s not as impressive as it might sound; I’ve heard stories of them lasting into the following evening.

I’d like to go into this in more detail but I’ll have to point out (once again) that to try and explain a subject like the very complex sociodynamics of bonding amongst theatre casts (hmm, anyone looking for a PhD topic?) isn’t possible in a blog post like this one; I’ll put it on my (long) list for another time. But it comes down to this: doing a show with people can be intense and fun; this brings people together and sometimes makes them very close. Combine this with a party environment and it can’t help but be a recipe for a crazy good time.

2 Another theatre term; it means a part of the set that has wheels so it can be moved on and off without much effort. Though ‘without much effort’ is a relative term, particularly if you’re doing a show at the Shedley Theatre in Elizabeth.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, if you haven’t heard of it, is a book by Susanna Clark. I probably could have posted about this in either of the previous two entries because I was reading it over that time period – it’s a damn big book – but I wanted to do it when I had more time to spend.

Anyway, about the book – it’s brilliant. It begins in England in the early 1800s – but it’s not our England per se, since in this England it’s acknowledged that magic once existed – not just conjuring tricks but epic, powerful magic – and that the northern half of England was ruled for three hundred years by a powerful magician king named John Uskglass (aka The Raven King and about a few dozen other names).

But it’s been several hundred years since anyone in England has done any ‘real’ magic, and those who call themselves magicians are either street hustlers or gentlemen who study ‘theoretical magic’, which means they gather together and talk about the real magicians of yesteryear.

Then Mr Norrell, who can do – and has been doing, for some time – ‘real’ magic, appears. After he performs several acts of magic the people realise that he is telling the truth and, albeit at a gentle pace, the role of magic becomes important to the nation once again.

Some years after Mr Norrell appears, another man, Jonathan Strange discovers that he, too, can ‘do’ magic, and eventually becomes Norrell’s apprentice – a task made difficult by Norrell’s secrecy and reticence to grant Strange access to his immense and unique library of books of magic (as opposed to books about magic – the difference is significant); Strange is forced to ‘invent’ his own methods of casting spells, which turn out to be quite successful.

Throw in a few dozen other characters – including real-life historical figures such as King George III (the one with the madness), the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron - and a subplot featuring a powerful, malicious fairy known as ‘the gentleman with the thistle-down hair’ and the result is an epic story about passion, rivalry, duty and love. Oh, and magic. Lots of magic.

Now, while this might be enough for some people, it wouldn’t – necessarily – be what would ‘float my boat’, so to speak. I don’t read much fantasy anymore, so to view this on plot alone would probably cause my eyes to glaze over.

What makes this special is that it’s written in an utterly enchanting prose style and imbued with some of the driest, tongue-in-cheek humour I’ve ever encountered. Imagine if Jane Austen and Charles Dickens somehow had a love-child who grew up to write a little like both of them – but who also had access to a time machine in order to travel to the early 21st century and study contemporary English humour (in the form of, say, Blackadder and/or Yes, Minister) before zipping back to put pen to paper.

Clark uses the archaic spelling for such words as ‘chuse’ and ‘connexion’ and ‘shewed’ – which I cannot help but adore. And – best of all – the dear lady loves footnotes.4 There are literally hundreds of them throughout the book.

I won’t go into any more detail; I’ll just recommend to anyone who a) likes their literary fiction a little genrefied5 or who b) likes their genre fiction a bit more literarified6. However, it is not an adrenaline-charged rollercoaster ride of excitement. It’s 1006 pages long and there are large sections where not a great deal happens (relatively speaking). At times it’s descriptive simply for the sake of being descriptive. But for me that’s a positive rather than a negative, simply because I enjoy the prose style so much.

4So - as you’ve probably guessed by now - do I.
5This is a word I made up.
6So is this.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Matt Byrne Media is doing this show at the moment; the first two weeks were at the Goodwood Institute/Mayfair Theatre and the rest is on at the Shedley in Elizabeth. I got to see it on Wednesday night, and it’s great fun. Basically, it’s as the title suggests – a spelling bee, American style. There are six contestants with two adjudicators and an MC – and a few other characters doubled by the nine performers.

But they also get four audience members up to be competitors in the ‘bee’ – I got picked – who go up on stage and sit in the seats with the cast. This gets worked into the story and the ‘guest’ spellers stay on for as long as it takes for them to get eliminated. I managed my first two words but got stumped on the third; while I knew how to spell the word it turned out to be, I wasn’t sure (based on the definition – you always ask for the definition) if that was the word I needed to spell – basically, I took a gamble and lost. It’s not all about spelling as such – you actually have to know what the words mean and in this case I didn’t. Still, I wasn’t too put out – I had to sit still while and be quiet while on stage and I’d far rather be in the audience, laughing.

I wish I’d got antidisestablishmentarianism (one of the other guest contestants did) – ‘cause I know I can spell that out loud. Sure, it’s long but it’s phonetic. You’ve just got to keep track of where you’re up to.

Anyway, my spelling aside, it’s certainly worth a look if you’re up Elizabeth way – or even if you’re not and feel like making the trip.