David Whitney took a moment to tell us know about his role in 1984, working and touring with shake & stir, and what it takes to make awesome agents and directors.
Mister, you’re playing O’Brien in the return season of shake & stir’s 1984 (a production that terrified me)! Tell us about your character, and how you came to join this acclaimed production with one of our favourite Queensland companies.
O’ Brien is a member of the Inner Party and as such part of the ruling class. Our hero Winston, played by Bryan Probets, comes to believe that O’Brien is a friend and ally in his rebellion against the state. Is Winston wise to put his trust in O’Brien? You’ll have to see the show to find out, but clearly the character I play is something of a shape shifter, at times charming, at times menacing, at times brutal.
I had previously worked with Bryan in the QTC/Bell Shakespeare production of The Alchemist, and when the role of the evil, manipulative O’Brien became available for this tour and return season, Bryan thought I’d be perfect! Not quite sure how to take that but it’s been one of the great experiences of my career so I am deeply indebted to shake & stir for welcoming me to their great company. I had seen the archival recording of the 2012 production and immediately recognised that it was something I would love to do. It has come as a bonus to get to know shake & stir – one of the best companies I have ever worked for and clearly destined for a bright future.
Can you tell us about working on 1984 and in The Alchemist (2009) with Bryan Probets, who recommended you for the role of O’Brien? How important is your network?
Our characters didn’t actually meet in The Alchemist so this time it is very different in that Bryan and I work very closely, almost intimately together. I had admired his work on The Alchemist and on screen but working so closely with him this time has been such a pleasure. It really is a battle of wills and minds out there between our characters and we are utterly dependent on each other to be present and alive. Our scenes need to be a knife-edge game of cat and mouse (or cat and rat) and so it is deeply satisfying to have played that game with Bryan over the last 5 months.
As far as a network is concerned, this situation is unusual. Yes Bryan recommended me, and Nick, Ross and Nelle had seen some of my work, but they still asked around, as it was important not only that I was right for the role, but also that I would be a good temperament for the tour and to fit into what is a tight company. So I guess in this situation, my network helped. But network is not something I work at. I probably should work harder at it but that’s not really me. I try to do good work and be good to work with and hope that that speaks for itself.
We saw you in Mrs Warren’s Profession for STC (2013). How did you prepare for this, er, slightly different role?
Coincidentally, in both cases I was replacing another actor who was unavailable for a return season, so my preparations were quite similar. Both had shorter rehearsal times and I was required to fit in with a pre existing moves and production…quite happily in both cases as I admired both productions enormously. In both cases the directors (Michael Futcher 1984, Sarah Giles MWP) were very respectful and welcoming, as were the casts. I did all the normal preparation of research, understanding the play and the character etc, but the biggest difference was that in both cases I learnt the lines before rehearsal started. Normally I find that over 4 to 5 weeks of rehearsal the lines sort of learn themselves, through discussion, repetition and association with the blocking and interaction with the other actors. With 1984 and Mrs Warren, because of the short rehearsal time, I felt it best to be on top of it from day 1, mainly so as not to hold back the other actors who had already performed these roles numerous times. It still allowed for freedom and new discoveries but it just got everyone up to speed a lot more quickly.
Did you ever watch Big Brother?
No. To be willingly observed 24 hours a day is baffling to me. Being locked in that house with those people is my idea of Orwell’s Room101.
Did you read Orwell’s 1984 at school? What was your response to the novel and what was your response to this script? How much research do you generally try to do for a show?
I read it at NIDA as research for some show we were devising about alienation and dystopia. I loved the novel then and still do. It’s relevance to contemporary society only increases with time, as surveillance becomes more prevalent and as governments continue to manipulate information to suit their own purposes.
shake & stir’s adaptation is very faithful to the book and has elements of politics and language manipulation (Newspeak) but concentrates on the human dimension…the characters of Winston and Julia and the brief blossoming of their humanity, before it is stamped out by the state, as represented by my character. It’s that human interaction which is the stuff of drama and so makes it entertaining and involving for an audience. It also makes it very satisfying as an actor to play. I like to do lots of research. Obviously in this case reading the book, but knowing about Orwell and finding contemporary parallels politically and socially. I scour the media for references both literal and visual – anything that helps me enter into the world of the play.
When you are asked to audition how do you prepare for that experience? What are your favourite tips for actors?
I think it is all about the preparation – doing as much research as you can to know about the world of the play/film, the character, the director and to know the words (or the song if it’s a musical) as well as you can. The more prepared you are the more likely it will be that you can be relaxed, proactive and importantly, spontaneous in the audition room. The other great tip is to forget about it once it is done. There is nothing more you can do and it is out of your hands. Easier said than done, and not always advice I adhere to.
You work in TV and film too – what are the major differences for actors between work on stage and screen and what do you love about each medium?
It is all about story telling and being truthful, clear and interesting. The differences are about adjusting your performance to the appropriate size. You can be huge on film if it is truthful but there is no doubt stillness and economy are usually the way to go. But even in theatre one must adjust to different size spaces, as we have just done in over 30 venues – from 1500 seats down to 250. You keep the truth but play with the size of delivery, in volume, intensity, gesture – every way with mind, voice and body. I love being able to be simpler on camera and finding intensity and intimacy…but I also love the technical demands of hitting the back row in a theatre and make sure the received truth is strong for every member of the audience.
What did you learn from your NIDA training?
It’s a long time ago! I had great teachers and I learnt a lot technically in voice and movement, and I learnt a Stanislavski based method of script / character analysis that I still use today. Most importantly I learnt form my head of acting, George Whaley, that an actor should have an opinion and should have something to say! Sometimes that means a political or social message; sometimes it is about the human condition. The great plays / films combine both.
What’s the best thing you’ve learned outside of your formal training?
To laugh more – to play more and to take risks and be naughty. My favourite actors are the wicked ones. I was too careful and methodical early on. Too safe. I still prepare thoroughly but I try to be more spontaneous as well.
What qualities make an awesome agent?
Well my present agent, Mollison Keightley Management are awesome, as was my first agent, the legendary Bill Shanahan. In both cases, I felt as though I could talk to them openly and frankly and that they absolutely had my best interests at heart. The agent should have an insight into the sort of work that you would like to do and would be good for you. We all have different needs and a good agent, like a good director, should be alive to the best way to handle each wonderful, talented, neurotic, difficult individual. A good agent will guide you but the actor is ultimately the one who is in control – hard to remember sometimes when we feel we are completely at the mercy of casting directors and producers – which we are to some extent, but a good agent always feel like they are on your side, and is there to say ” oh well, didn’t get that job, but here’s what’s next.”
What makes a director good to work with? Can you tell us about working with Michael Futcher?
See above for my comments about what makes a good director – plus empathy, energy, respect, creativity, humour. The director should know the play better than anyone and have firm ideas while also being completely open to the input of others. They also need the ability to control a room, make and keep a productive schedule and make the rehearsal room as fun and serious as it needs to be. All of which Michael Futcher has in spades. Quite simply one of the best I have worked with. The rehearsal process for me for 1984 was so enjoyable, as Michael was so respectful of me and my situation as the new cast member, gave me really detailed and nuanced suggestions – but also watched what I did and allowed that to generate new ideas. He also loves language as I do, so we very particular about certain words and how to use them. I would work with him again anytime. He should be directing for main stage companies constantly…and I hope when he does I get to work with him again.
How do you connect with the other actors on stage? Do you hang out in between shows or for the sake of this character, and these relationships on stage; do you keep a bit of distance?
Connecting on stage is simply about being present and alive moment to moment. It’s just something one automatically does through focus and concentration, and willingly giving over to the given circumstances. Any moments of self-consciousness, I try to avoid by focusing on the other actors and how I am trying to affect them…what I am doing to them and receiving what they are giving to me.
And yes, we hang out together all the time. The coldness and distance of O’ Brien is only for the stage, as I can’t think of a better cast to socialise with. We have so much fun back stage too, despite the seriousness and dour nature of 1984.
How do you survive on tour?
As I said, we socialised a lot and the whole gang, cast and crew were a very happy bunch. There are always times when I need some solitude and everybody was very respectful of that…the hardest thing was saying no when the Shake and Stir guys would try to twist my arm to visit some fabulous bar or restaurant…their energy is so admirable and infectious that we were able to find the positive in just about every town. I also walk a lot, so I would always head for the beach or the river during the daytime and get some exercise and clear my head.
What does down time look like?
I teach acting when I am not in a performing role…and I try to read, exercise and stay connected to what is going on in the industry. Basically I am pretty lazy so I hope down time doesn’t go on for too long as I like the discipline of a long run to keep me busy.
What are you working on next?
Well as soon as 1984 finishes I am travelling to the US as my daughter is starting college at NYU and I am going over with her to settle her in as well as see some shows in New York that I will be auditioning for back here. After that I don’t know. There are a couple of things floating around that hopefully will take me through to Christmas…but who knows. I’ve had a great year and something will turn up. It always does, eventually.