Monday, October 11, 2010

Suddenly At Home

I've just finished my most recent show, Suddenly At Home, with the Tea Tree Players (hereafter known as TTP). It's been an interesting experience, so I thought it was worth writing about.

There's really no way I can discuss the show at any length without giving away major plot points, so this whole thing really is one big spoiler. However, it's not exactly a well-known or commonly produced show, so I don't think that's a good enough excuse for not reading my blog1.

1I could really use the boost to my stats. Google Analytics has made me much more interested in such things.


I auditioned for the play back in July just after my last show, Tempest, finished. I'd heard of it because my friend and fellow ATG reviewer Fran Edwards was directing and, when I'd mentioned some time back that I was interested in doing a show up at TTP, since I'd never done one with them before.

Fran had given me the script before the auditions and I'd had a flip through beforehand, and found there were two characters I was interested in: Glenn, the lead; and Sam, the – for want of a better description – interfering ex-boyfriend of Glenn's wife, Maggie. Glenn was by far the larger part; he's in all six scenes and off-stage for only 13 (or so) pages of the 62-page script. And most of the time he's on stage he's talking.

Given that I'd never played a lead role before, and have – despite my experience with and enthusiasm for theatre – an aversion for learning vast numbers of lines, I was angling for the smaller role of Sam and actually tried harder in reading for him than I did for Glenn. So I was a little surprised when I got the call from Fran asking me if I wanted to play not Sam but Glenn.

Decisions, decisions. To be offered a lead role in theatre is a big deal; the combination of the ego boost and the vague, lingering fear that another such opportunity may never arise again can exert some serious pressure.

But there was a conflict – work. I'd just found out I was being seconded to another team, shifting from the city office to Kidman Park (meaning more travel time) and adjusting to doing an almost completely different set of tasks from what I was used to. To throw the pressure and workload of a lead role on top of that struck me as something I should be wary of, since I wouldn't want to undermine either (or both) my work or my performance.

But the lure of the lead won out, and I took the role of Glenn.

A somewhat different kind of play

Spoilers ahoy.

One of the other factors affecting my decision was that I'd never done a play like Suddenly At Home. It's a very English kind of a whodunit thriller from the 70s (we reset it in the 90s; a shame 'cause I would have like to have sported an era-appropriate moustache) and, while that's not necessarily the kind of play that companies put on very often, I've always been keen to try to do as many kinds of shows as I can.

However, the script wasn't the best I'd ever read. The dialogue – a product of its time – was some of the least natural-sounding I'd ever encountered. And while certain aspects of the plot were very well-thought-out, other parts weren't as convincing; the ending in particular was very clunky and seemed like a case of having been thrown together in order to make a deadline.

But such is the life of the actor. Unless you've got the playwright handy and can convince him/her to change the script, or you've got an uncharacteristically flexible director who'll allow you to do it yourself, you've not really got a lot of choice.

It's the story of Glenn Howard, who murders his wealthy wife Maggie – this, however, happens fairly early on in the play, so it's less accurate to describe it as a whodunit as it as to say it's a does-he-get-away-with-it. There's a twist (of course) – it turns out he's having an affair with Sheila, a heroin-addicted actress friend of his wife's, and she's his accomplice in the murder. But the twists don't stop there; it turns out that Glenn's also worked his charm on Ruth, the au pair; together she and Glenn are also plotting to do away with Sheila once the heat from Maggie's death is off.

Glenn, therefore, is an interesting character to play, since he's equal parts charming, devious, manipulative and lethal.

Complicating the matters are Maggie's ex-boyfriend Sam, thriller-writer and crime buff, whom Glenn has attempted to frame for the murder; Maggie's sister Helen, whose helpfulness complicates matters for Sam; the more perceptive-than-he-seems Inspector Appleton; and the mysterious Superintendent Remick.

I was going to have my work cut out for me.

Partners in Crime

I'd be working with a mix of people I'd worked with before, some who I'd seen in shows, and others who were new to me.
  • Jayne Kearney as Maggie, Glenn's wife – I'd met Jayne through a mutual friend but never seen her in a show before.
  • Stacey Hendy as Helen, Maggie's sister – Stacey has done plenty of theatre, but I'd never (to my knowledge) seen any of the shows she's been in, nor had a I met her before.
  • Selena Carr as Sheila, Glenn's secret junkie actress lover and partner in crime – Sel's an old friend and we appeared together in the Burnside production of Much Ado About Nothing.
  • Alastair Collins as Sam Blaine, Maggie's writer ex-boyfriend – I'd seen him in a number of shows, including Mixed Salad's award-winning production of The History Boys, as well as a couple of TTP shows I'd reviewed.
  • Catlin Mackintosh as Ruth, au pair to Maggie and yet another of Glenn's secret lovers – I'd never seen Catlin before, but neither has anyone else; this was her first show.
  • John Matsen as Inspector Appleton – I'd appeared with John in the Marie Clark production of Oliver! in which he played Mr Brownlow.
  • Adrian Heness as Superintendent Remick – I'd not met Adrian before, but I'd seen him on stage when I reviewed the TTP production of Thumbs.
Oh, and stage manager was Drew Webb, who I've known for a few years and worked with backstage a couple of times up at Northern Light.

Lines. Lots of lines

While by glancing through the script I'd seen how many lines Glenn has in the play, I don't think I'd grasped just how much work I had in front of me until I'd done what I always do once I've got lines to learn, which is type them all out into a Word document2.

The count was over six and a half thousand words. And yes, if you're wondering, that is a lot to learn by theatre standards. Of course there are bigger roles, but it's by a substantial margin the largest role I've ever had, probably as much to learn as the last half-dozen shows I've done put together.

But the volume of lines was a problem in more ways than one. Knowing your words is only one part of acting; you also need to create a character3, and that also takes time and – for want of a better word – experimentation.

I work full time, so there's a reasonably large chunk of my day made unavailable already. When I'm not at work tends to be spent seeing theatre and films, watching television, conversing (and arguing) with people over the internet, reading, listening to music and – of course – writing. Oh, and from time to time I put myself in the company of other people; that is, however, a somewhat declining hobby for a number of reasons I won't elaborate on at the moment.

However, faced with this Herculean task, I realised that I would have to give up – or, at least, curtail to some extent – some of my activities in order to find the much-needed time required to cram the lines into my head well enough that I'd be able to remember them come performance time.

As much as it pains me to write this, I have to admit it that it was reading which was the first to suffer. In recent times I've been reading less than I had in previous years, mostly because I'd had some sleeping issues, and one of the things I'd read (ironically enough) was that reading in bed can contribute to that. So, I'd stopped that, meaning that the majority of reading I did was on the bus to and from work.

But I realised that that time would be very useful for line-learning since it was completely distraction free, unlike home where I'd be tempted by either the television, the bookcase or the computer(s). Of course, going over lines isn't something you can do with music on – well, okay, you might; I can't because it's too distracting – so I had to forgo that particular pleasure as well. But it wasn't such a big deal because there were other opportunities to listen to music – in the car, at the gym – while reading was pretty much out for the duration.

I can't think of a two-month period of my life where I've read fewer books than during this time, even during exams at uni4. And considering I've on occasions averaged finishing two novels a week5 that's a significant drop.

But that's okay; as they say, you have to suffer for your art.

2I'm of the opinion that this helps with line-learning by putting the information into a different part of my brain from the part that lines go to when learnt by other methods. Plus I can print out the longer and/or troublesome parts and put them places – cubicle walls at work and, in this case, a display folder that I could take with me in the car to study when I got the opportunity.
3This is because, at least in the majority of cases, the person you're playing isn't very much like you; they will almost certainly talk differently – both in terms of accent and intonation – and move differently from how you do, plus you have to at least try and understand why the character is doing what he/she is doing; you're always far more convincing when you do.
4Hey, I still did okay. Well, most of the time. Not that it I think it made much difference either way.
5For a while I actually kept count, mostly to keep track of books I'd read by authors who seemed to choose unhelpful titles; there's nothing more annoying that getting home from the library and sitting down with a book only to find out it's one I've already read.

A question of intimacy

I won't mince words: in the play, Glenn kisses people. A lot. It's perfunctory with Helen, his sister-in-law; with his wife and his mistresses, however, it's a bit more enthusiastic.

And this isn't necessarily something everyone finds easy to do. I don't have a problem with it in principle, but what does put me off is that the person I'm kissing doesn't really want to be doing it – either (or both) because of the act itself or the idea of doing it with me6.

Interestingly enough, the last time I'd had to kiss someone (Much Ado About Nothing) it was the same person I'd kissed the first time I'd had to kiss someone (The Matchmaker), so we didn't really worry too much about it; the first time, though, we'd had a bit of a discussion about it and then just did it in rehearsals without any real dramas.

But we – those members of the SAH cast with whom I'd be locking lips – hadn't gotten around to talking about it by the time Fran told us we had to stop kissing air and start kissing each other. It wasn't, however, that big a deal; we all worked out what we needed to do and did it.

6I don't consider that to be particularly unreasonable.

Getting into character

As I noted earlier, learning lines is only part of the job of acting; there's also the problem of character. And since Glenn, devious serial adulterer and cold-blooded killer, isn't really all that much like me, I had quite a lot of work to do.

First up was the accent. Glenn would need an English accent, but what kind? It couldn't be a regional one, if for no other reason that, despite being reasonably good at picking them, up I'm not confident I could maintain any of the more distinct ones (e.g. Liverpool or northern) for an entire show. Well, not at least with the limited time I had thanks to the line-learning demands.

Glenn says uses expressions like 'old boy' and 'old man', and that's a bit of a giveaway to how he would speak. So I tried a few minor variations around the sort of generic, non-specific English accent that I've used before. It was less formal than the one I used as Alonso in Tempest – since he was, after all, a king – but it was still quite clipped.

It's hard to explain exactly what that means in terms of different words without me tracking down all the html codes for the proper pronunciation symbols. One key one, though, is how I pronounced day-names – e.g. Tuesday comes out more like 'Tuesdy'; then there's where the stress on words went – when Glenn says 'would you like a drink?'7, the 'ink' in drink is much more elongated than it would be were I saying it in my normal accent.

After a few goes during rehearsals I was fairly happy with how it sounded.

Next was trying to get my head around how to make Glenn seem believable – or, more accurately, make me seem believable as Glenn. He's a man who's charming enough to have a wife and two mistresses, with both of the latter sufficiently swayed by his personality to be an accomplice to murder.

Not something I can really relate to. As I said to the cast, if I knew how to do what Glenn does then I'd be dead by now, either from sexual exhaustion, at the hands of a jealous husband/boyfriend, or an heroic number of venereal diseases.8 So, trying to make myself appear to be even vaguely able to convey that kind of charm was going to take some effort.

Movement was the first part, since confidence always shows through in things like posture. Then there was the composure – Glenn is almost always sure of what he's doing, and that's got to come through as well. He's rarely ever hesitant, unless it's a deliberate ploy. Getting that sort of mindset going takes a lot of effort, especially for me.

While I think I managed to get there eventually, I don't think it was quite there on opening night – which I'll talk more about later.

7Which he says rather a lot, actually.
8Or possibly all three.

Lacking sleep

It was all going well, but as we got more into it – it really does change as you get more comfortable with the words and the moves and the emotions and characters – the harder I was finding it to get to sleep after rehearsals. And I don't cope well with diminished sleep: it makes me short-tempered and irritable9, it interferes with my gym-going, and it contributes to the weakening of my often unhelpful immune system.

9Okay, more so. My current coworkers haven't seen it yet, but several of my former cube neighbours have.


Because we'd been rehearsing in the theatre the whole time we didn't have the standard bump-in (i.e. move everything – set, props, costume etc. – to the theatre) day; instead, we just had a normal rehearsal. Oh, except for the fact my parents – who were down from Queensland – were there. That was a bit weird; they've not seen me do any theatre since high school, and this is just a little different from that.

We had another rehearsal Monday night, and then final dress/preview on Tuesday night. And then it was all business. I was worried because I felt under-rehearsed - reasonably inevitable considering the role and the number of lines I had to keep in my head.

Opening night wasn't the best, mostly because we weren't prepared for audience reaction. It's really not a comedy, but they seemed to be laughing the whole way through. This wasn't so bad at some points but at others – the one at which I was murdering my stage wife with a cushion in particular – it was more than a little off-putting.

I don't think we were quite ready by then; Friday night, two nights later, we were far better. And I think that's reflected in the review (you can read it here), especially the part about me. I wasn't as confident as I needed to be, and that showed.

As the performances went on, though, we got better and better. One of the things I've always found about theatre is that there are always things, little things, you don't think of until you're out there with an audience in front of you. How and when to deliver a line, what expression to have on your face, how to hold a prop – that sort of thing.

One thing I hit on was how much 'acting' Glenn does to convey his sorrow regarding Maggie's death – for those he's trying to fool at least. In front of Sheila, of course, he's normal; there are a couple of scenes where he 'switches' his mourning on and off as easily as he changes pants10. One way I thought of to do this was pure serendipity: I spotted the eyedrops Maggie used in an earlier scene, and realised that if Glenn really wanted to appear upset, maybe he'd use them to fake having red eyes. You know, from weeping11.

10Which he does a lot, much to my annoyance - since I hate costume changes.
11Yeah, he's really that awful. Or maybe I am. It's hard to tell sometimes.

Suddenly it's over – and time to reflect

The end of most shows involves a mixture of emotions. Sadness because it's fun doing a show in which I'm enjoying myself; relief because I want to get back to doing all the other things I like doing that performing gets in the way of – reading, going to the movies, that sort of thing. During the run of a show I'm almost always tired and that annoys me. Plus, to be perfectly honest, I get bored with a show after a while – and this show has had a longer run (11 performances) than any other I've done before (9 at most prior to this).

As a result, the matinee on the second Saturday was possibly the most trying experience I've had in theatre; to keep focus enough to perform at anywhere near the required level was more difficult than it's ever been before. I don't think I stuffed anything up per se, but I was most certainly not as 'on' as I was in the other performances. I think that it was only the combination of the final night excitement (for want of a better term) and the fact my friend Chris was coming to see it that kept it from being as wretched as the previous Saturday night.

One thing I did realise from the experience, though, is that playing the lead in a show – at least an amateur show – isn't really all that different from any other role. I didn't really think it would be, but you never know. But, despite what you might suspect about being a lead, there's no glamour and no special treatment, just a lot more work and pressure.

But it's been a great experience. I've had sizeable roles before, but never a lead with as much stage time or as many lines as this; it's taught me just how much time and effort is required for that kind of part. I got to play yet another different kind of character in a genre of theatre I'd not done before and work in a new space with people I hadn't (mostly) worked with before.

Oh and one other thing I learned? The Red Bull shot (the concentrated, non-carbonated one) may be the vilest substance I've ever had the misfortune to have in my mouth. If normal Red Bull can be considered to taste like cat's piss – and I believe it can – then the shot version tastes like it's had another animal's urine added to it; my guess is camel. An unhealthy camel that's been in the desert for a few too many days.


  1. Haha, I enjoyed the part about the red bull shot the most.
    I think it might be the most important note about this whole production.

    <3 the "Actress" you've never seen before,

  2. Im about to direct this play in Liverpool. This was an insight into what my lead might get up to. Thanks