Posts Tagged ‘Michael Futcher

14
May
16

Vis and Ramin

Vis and Ramin

Metro Arts & Baran

Metro Arts Sue Benner Theatre

10 – 14 May 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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To seek refuge in a safe corner from the bitterness of the world, to form the world in a different shape, the shape of your dreams…

– Nasim Khosravi, Director

The noisy chaos of the Metro Arts foyer is not due to the Anywhere Fest show about to start in the next theatre. The chatter and shouts and riotous fun of a close community brought together on a Friday night is contained in the ancient city of Marv, out front of the Sue Benner Theatre, and it’s probably as authentic as we’ll get without being in a far off marketplace or port. We’re welcomed, and issued with passports (APPROVED), a couple of hand stamped silver coins and strict instructions to read the city rules, posted on the wall, part of the foyer design created largely from cardboard.

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We’re invited to sample, for the cost of a single coin, a coconut macaroon and hot black tea (its steam smells of thyme), poured from a copper pot. Poppy is told by the keeper of the tea that she may have the second coin for herself; she’s very pleased and politely thanks the guy before nudging me with her elbow in glee. This is because after we’d pocketed our passports and coins, and headed upstairs to find the Ladies (I always forget which floor the bathrooms are on), she had said to me, “Ohhh, I wish I could keep just one coin for the memory!”. I smiled and reminded her that we can have whatever it is we wish for if we believe we are deserving of it…

Something about the fragrance of the tea, or the contented noise, or the smiles all around remind me of the lovely Eshai Teahouse at Woodford Folk Festival. Not last year’s, when it had moved to Folklorica, but years ago, when an intimate, leafy little set up first appeared on site, by the bridge and the wood-fired pizza oven on the way to The Village Green. But we are not in the familiar grounds of Woodfordia now and this is the best attempt I’ve seen yet, of matching this particular foyer to a show.

For some reason I expect to be able to smell the heady scent of red roses…

Banned in Iran since the revolution, this ancient Persian tale of forbidden love is packed with rebellion and upheaval. The famous classic has been revitalised with bilingual story telling and sophisticated multi-media for a dynamic contemporary performance experience.

Baran’s production is not so much sophisticated as rustic and its dynamic stillness is perhaps what is meant by the reference here. This is not to say that the show is anything but what it was intended to be: a retelling of the much-loved tale of Vis and Ramin, a Persian love story from 2000 years ago, which has inspired or influenced countless retellings. (C’mon, it was James Franco, remember? I was always going to link to that!).

The story is believed to belong to the Parthian period and is written in poetry by Fakhraddin Gurgani about 1000 years ago. Gurgani is a pioneer in writing love stories in poetry and his style was largely emulated by later poets such as Nezami. “Vis o Ramin” is one of the most influential ancient love stories. The story is about a love affair between two young lovers who sacrifice name, family, social obligations and everything else to be with each other. It was loved and admired by people long after it was written.

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Images of the language become almost provocative as they are projected across bodies clad in all white everything: simple, asymmetrically finished tunics worn over pants. The feet are bare. We watch the words and pictures moving playfully across the white fabric and black backdrop, and we read the English subtitles for the words spoken in Farsi, which is the bulk of it; the entire narrative component. I love hearing the language; it’s beautifully poetic and it’s almost a shame when the actors break the fourth wall to address us in English. Of course this is the device, the connection between actors and audience must be established, and we are asked what we think might happen, or if a character’s action is right or justified. It works well the first couple of times, taking us by surprise and establishing a genuine connection between storytellers and listeners. We’re invested because the storytellers care about what we think, which means we have to focus and know what’s going on. NO PRESSURE. Later, the flow of the narrative is interrupted once too often but then suddenly it’s the end and we are to decide what will happen next.

The audience is invited to join the cast on stage, and talk and share wine with them. It’s a clever debrief, a vital element when such an intense story is cut short. The company want to know what we think should happen next. They want to know how we feel about…love. And they want to be sure that their message is clear, that the story will continue to endure through the ages.

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Some beautiful motifs seek to awaken our senses, but they are brief. The production throws light, literally, onto the passion of the lovers; we see them in various gorgeous embraces. This is not only a necessary sensuous element in what is essentially a static storytelling event, but an authentic interpretation of the perception of love in ancient Persian times.

The story reveals a great deal about a period in Iranian history about which very little is known. The traditions and customs of those times do not necessarily match those of our times. The story talks about marriage of sister and brother – common amongst the ruling class at the time. This is something that is loathed for some centuries, but the story talks about a different time, different people, and different traditions from ours.

There are also the subject and the main character of the book that create a stir. The story is about an earthly love, one that is all about desire. This is very different from the notion of love that became popular in later centuries. The love that has a connection to the heavens and almighty was not known in ancient Iran. In all ancient Iranian love stories, love is very much the love based on the attraction of two people of opposite sex.

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She dares to fall in love with her husband’s brother for no other motive than love.

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I read the program notes the next day and discover that the performers are not all trained actors but members of the community who have come together to pass this story on. Was I even aware that we have such a vibrant Iranian community in Brisbane? Without feeling too stupid or beating myself up about it, I admit, no, I was not. 

I’m at a stage where I question the way we train performers and prepare for performance… No, I mean now more than ever. Having been privy lately to the traditions of Columbian theatre maker, Beatriz Camargo, and other organic, collaborative, “devised” approaches to making theatre (the term has lost all sense of wonder and immediately conjures in my mind the weird and sometimes wonderful pieces created by the students of tired, jaded, lazy Drama teachers who omit the guiding, directing and inspiring components of teaching Drama. Of course, when collaborative “devised” work is done well, the results are incredibly rewarding for all involved), I look for various ways into the performance. I want to be drawn in by the colour, the text, the movement, the sound, the shape, the story, the gaze of the actors… I want to view the performance on the same vibration as the performers bring it. I want to absorb their energy and go away into the night…changed, or at the very least, affected.

My favourite performer is Nasim Takavar (Vis), a genuine delight, graceful and so gently, quietly confident in a way we don’t often see in a female heroine. It’s refreshing to see such beautifully contained strength. (It’s no surprise that Takavar works in the early childhood sector by day).

Director, Nasim Khosravi has certainly achieved a lovely, innocent, lyrical tone to proceedings and with this style establishes Baran as a company to keep an eye on. While the emphasis seems to be on the text in this instance, I don’t doubt that Khosravi will continue to explore more challenging vocal and physical elements in performance. I would also welcome a live musical element in future performances. (Did an earlier version include the musicians on stage?).

A number of well respected Brisbane practitioners have contributed to the creative development of this production and now I believe Baran is ready to take the next step, perhaps, for example, by inviting into the room, a writer and director of Michael Futcher’s calibre. Another set of eyes on this theatrical style will likely elevate it, and give it broader appeal, if that is indeed what Khosravi and her team desires.

I heard such an interesting comment in a workshop today, with regard to a different production but nevertheless relevant to this one. A mainstage company had recently retold a beloved ancient tale using the most expensive design, and the most impressive and technically proficient choreography and the best dancers, while a less sophisticated version had achieved a longer lasting impact on the viewer because there was a genuine connection between the performers and the content – the story they shared – and thus, a genuine connection between performers and audience was established (and remembered by at least one audience member). As theatre makers we cannot afford to forget the value of finding a way to connect with the material and with the audience. As theatre lovers we recognise when a connection is made and a story is successfully told because those are the stories that stay etched on our minds and hearts long after the season is over.

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31
Mar
16

Concerto For Harmony and Presto

 

Concerto for Harmony and Presto

QPAC

QPAC Cremorne

March 29 – April 2 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

This is a story of two unlikely friends. One day Presto arrives, bringing with him an astonishing array of bits and bobs that threaten Harmony’s neat and ordered existence. Harmony sees a cart full of junk. Presto sees infinite possibilities – precious things that when put together just the right way can create extraordinary music!

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This morning, THIS HAPPENED. WONDERFUL!

QPAC and debase are partnering with Autism Queensland to present a Sensory Friendly Performance of Concerto for Harmony and Presto.

QPAC acknowledges that individuals with sensory and social disabilities may require support in attending performing arts events. This performance session is specifically designed for children with ASD or other sensory, social or learning disabilities that create sensory sensitivities.

Sensory Friendly Performances involve modifying a particular performance session by adapting the audience environment and providing pre-theatre preparatory activities for the person with a sensory, social, or learning disability so they can understand and anticipate what might happen during the performance.

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I missed seeing an excerpt from deBase’s Concerto for Harmony and Presto at APAM16 and Poppy and I thought that maybe this show would be another one billed by QPAC for kids aged 3+ meaning suitable for 3 – 8 year olds, which is a common challenge for parents when contemplating which children’s theatre to take the over eights to. We were pleasantly surprised to find the fun for all ages in it.

Even before the show begins the atmosphere is warm and welcoming.

Gasping in mock horror and scolding each other as we do so, we leap over a row of seats because that’s the quickest and easiest way into our own. We love the sweet 40s & 50s tunes that play before the show and we see a friend to say hello to. It’s Lighting Designer, Jason Glenwright. Poppy is polite, as always, but unimpressed; they’ve met a number of times before and she simply says to me matter of factly, “Good, the lights will be good then”. She and I chat quietly about the lovely muted colours and rich but raw textures on stage while younger children all around us loudly demand snacks and ask, “When will it start?”

We relax into the autumnal colours, brought to life across a vertical surface of muslin and cotton and satin, enchanting colour and texture. A rustic, old-fashioned ambience is created by Glenwright’s gentle golden glow and the upbeat laid back party music of our grandparents: Sweet Georgia Brown, You Made Me Love You and If You Knew Susie… We sing along, playing imaginary spoons on our knees and soft-shoe-ing cool moves beneath the seats.

Old world shadow puppets, beautifully cut, are used to to set up the classic story of a young girl, Harmony, and her parents, who fall on hard times. The father loses his job at the factory and, reminiscent of the story of Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Harmony is sent to market with strict instructions to sell the family’s beloved gramophone, which is symbolic of their joy. As she turns and walks away, she remembers their days and nights of singing and dancing while the silhouette of her father hangs his head in his hands. A small child nearby whispers, “Mummy, he’s crying.”

When the lights came up again after the dimness it was like a sunrise and I felt engaged. The puppets were beautiful.

– Poppy Eponine

The travelling tinker, Presto (Don Voyage), and the little girl, Harmony (Liz Skitch), find that they have set up in the same place, which leads to conflict. Most offended is Harmony, who sets a rope between them. She and her Dead Puppet Society puppet, Lucy, will dance for pennies and Presto can do what he likes, as long as he stays on his side of the rope and doesn’t attract too much attention from the passers by. After all, she is there to make money to help her family, which is far more important than…whatever it is he is there to do.

What will happen to Harmony when she finds herself in a spot of trouble? Will Presto cross the line to help her? He makes it clear that she has made it clear from the beginning that he should stay in his dance space and she in hers. There are lovely subtle nods to some of our country’s biggest issues here… A moment suggests that Harmony might do away with the rope and invite him over but alas, she only moves it nearer to allow him to reach the precious gramophone, which is in desperate need of his unique skill set. (Earlier, perhaps not as subtly, Presto steps near enough to be physically present at Harmony’s tea party, but only as a non English speaking servant to pour the tea…). What follows is a hilarious and chaotic sequence of crazy, zany emergency treatments, with (Dr) Presto and (Nurse) Harmony working together, channelling classic Commedia and clowning energy and antics (Dramaturg Robert Kronk) to bring the broken gramophone back to life.

Presto’s sound effects especially are sensational and nothing is safe; every object is a noise-making instrument. (Some objects produce sounds that are more musical than others). He communicates using a language entirely of his own making, using gesture and bird whistle words. He’s very clear and we’re reminded that the challenges we experience when communicating with others is less about what they are saying and more about what we are hearing. 

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When Harmony and Presto finally tune in to what the other is saying and discover a way to work together the children in the audience clap and cheer. Harmony invites us, without a word, to be a part of the concerto by handing out colourful toy instruments and prompting us to clap along. Skitch employs every facial expression in her repertoire, Voyage struts and trumpets and the kids love it!

Presto surreptitiously loops the sound effects to create a final multi-layered piece that plays beneath the live trumpet and percussion sounds. What began as a simple kitchen collection of noisy junk becomes a richly textured musical number, the Concerto of the title. A stronger finish will make this show almost perfect.

Directors, Helen Howard and Michael Futcher, expertly manipulate the artists’ playful exploration and their heartfelt communication to transform a simple story into a sophisticated musical extravaganza, which genuinely engages and delights all ages.

17
Aug
15

Dracula

 

Dracula

QPAC and shake & stir

QPAC Cremorne

August 13 – September 5 2015

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

I will take no refusal…

 

 

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shake & stir’s Dracula is an ambitious gothic horror piece with spectacular production elements playing the pivotal roles.

 

 

This new version of the Bram Stoker classic, adapted for the stage by Nick Skubij and Nelle Lee, presumes we know Dracula down to its last detail but as I discovered after the show on opening night, of course there are some for whom the story is new. A difficult text to condense – an epic story across oceans, and oceans of time – we miss some early detail, such as Jonathan Harker’s first dreamy, lusty, dreadful encounter with the brides of Dracula, the “devils of the pit” (We hear about it after the fact, as the encounters continue). It’s not a biggie, but it’s typical of this adaptation, which seems to skirt around the themes of female sexuality and the genuine fear during the Victorian era of women awakening to their own sexual power, more so than any power a man might wield.

 

Harker’s narration of strange and supernatural events comes to us in the form of a pre-recorded voiceover that detracts from the overall effect of the production rather than enhances it. (The passage of time is evident in Jason Glenwright’s ingenious lighting states and Josh McIntosh’s spectacular set changes, incorporating a revolving winding stairwell and too many nooks and crannies to list!). Guy Webster’s spine tingling soundscape is otherwise perfect, complete with cracking thunder, buzzing flies, the snarling and howling of hounds outside and the chilling screams and screeches of the devil’s concubines.

 

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It’s not the lush, decadent, delicious show I’d expected (although, as I tell everybody whenever I’m off to see shake & stir, these are the beautiful people of Brisbane theatre, gorgeous on stage and off, every one). Their Dracula is a dark and sombre journey, unrelenting, with the only light and shade coming from Glenwright’s lighting design (doors opening with a shaft of light sans door?! It’s really incredible work, his best to date), and David Whitney’s high-energy performance as Renfield and later, as Van Helsing. With his appearance as Van Helsing, Whitney whips up the pace and holds his loyal band of vampire killers at his heels.

 

A great study in status and deadpan delivery, Whitney commands the stage, dominating the narrative and the space.

 

Michael Futcher’s direction is gentle and sure, allowing each member of the company to play to their strengths. His use of the imposing set is brilliant, with the versatile design allowing seamless transitions between rapidly changing scenes and successfully hiding the pale faced, platinum blonde Dracula from us multiple times, causing those around me to jump in genuine fright each time the Count appears from out of the shadows.

 

As Jack, Ross Balbuziente’s confounded game is strong and as Harker, Tim Dashwood offers a genteel, endearing performance, but by the same token doesn’t get a chance to be seduced and subsequently ravished, which seems a shame (although that racy version might require an R-rating. Don’t worry, parents and principals, it’s all very tame, implied rather than made explicit). Some of the most shocking and surprising moments come from the special effects. The flash paper and the blood effects are superb. Likewise, some of Nigel Poulton’s best work is showcased in a no holds barred True Blood style fight scene.

 

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Despite the potential to do more (ravishing) within their roles, Nelle Lee (Mina) and Ashlee Lollback (Lucy) rely on some safe choices, however, having said that, feeling less than 100% on opening night, Lollback’s vocal work is strong and her extraordinary physicality is bold and sure (and suitably shocking). Leigh Buchanan’s exquisite gowns on these girls are testament to his intuitive and dramaturgical design sense, allowing full movement and at the same time, constraint of their feminine wiles. Buchanan retains the lavish authenticity of the Victorian times in the gentlemen’s garb too, bringing only Dracula’s street style into the new millennium for the later London scenes.

 

Nick Skubij wears his leather well.

 

He’s as ancient and as alluring and intriguing as he needs to be to convince every senior student in a skirt that it would be just fine to hold her breath through the bite and opt for eternal life by his side. Oh, right. Not very PC to say so? Okay. AND YET.

 

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Even without the hedonism I’d expected, Dracula is an accomplished production, with all the hallmarks of “another bloody classic” that teachers and students will appreciate for its astute combination of dramatic elements and entertaining performances; everything in alignment with our Australian Gothic Theatre criteria. The general public will love it because with Zen Zen Zo MIA and Brisbane Festival still a few weeks away, there’s nothing else quite like it, is there? And, look, at the end of the day, who doesn’t love a good vampire story? But does it go as far as it could go to seduce, surprise and shock us? No. Why not? Why lead us to the edge of delicious lust and the struggle for power only to pull us back before we experience it? Are we (am I?) so desensitised that this neat, safe staging of sex and blood and gore, and the struggle between the supernatural and the human spirit fails to impress?

 

If theatre isn’t a form of voyeurism, continually challenging and changing our self-perception and our perspective of the world through our imagined experiences, what are we doing in it? What are we doing with it?

 

Why do we ever revisit a classic? Why do we need to see this story brought to life again? Is there a new lesson? Is it challenging the status quo? Is it simply an entertaining story?

 

shake & stir have always set such a ridiculously high standard with their mainstage productions that it comes as a complete surprise to walk away feeling slightly underwhelmed by Dracula. Once again, shake & stir have created a mainstage show that is perfectly tweaked for schools. This has been their strength for some time, but in time for their 10-year anniversary next year, I’m hoping that this exceptional and enduring company considers turning their approach on its head in order to stake a stronger claim in the national mainstage landscape. shake & stir remain one of this country’s most exciting, original, dynamic and dedicated theatre companies. I would hate to see them plateau after they’ve worked so hard to continuously raise the bar.

 

 

Production pics by Dylan Evans

 

 

 

 

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31
Jul
14

1984: A chat with David Whitney

 

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.

 

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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.

 

And what is shake & stir up to next? You know it will sell out, don’t you? Right. So book your tix already!

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28
Aug
13

Tequila Mockingbird

 

Tequila Mockingbird

shake and stior theatre co & QPAC

QPAC Cremorne Theatre

22 August – 7 September 2013

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward 

 

The creative powerhouse behind the smash hit, sell out productions Animal Farm and 1984, return in 2013 with a new Australian play.

 

Directed by Michael Futcher and featuring a cast of some of Queensland’s finest actors,Tequila Mockingbird visits themes of racial prejudice, the perversion of justice and the consequences of alcohol abuse, all in a uniquely Australian context.

 

After a woman is attacked in a remote Australian town, the racist underbelly rears its head as the community targets a young Indian Doctor who has recently relocated to the area. Only one local man possesses the strength to uncover the truth and defend the accused in the ultimate fight for what’s right but first, he must take care of other matters, a little closer to home. 

 

Don’t miss this bold, brave new work examining a darker side of Australian culture lurking just below the surface.

 

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There are so many reasons to love shake and stir but first, before you keep reading, book your tickets for their Tequila Mockingbird or you’ll miss out! This is a heart-smart and thought provoking contemporary take on the Pulitzer Prize winning classic novel by Nelle Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). Kids, if you haven’t read it you’ll want to, after experiencing this production. This is a company consistently bringing us cross-curricular current political and dynamic work – it’s literally breathing new life into old work – and from what I can see, they’ve pretty convincingly cornered the market. If you’re teaching at a school that hasn’t booked them yet, do it. If you’re at a school and your teachers haven’t booked them yet, bug them until they do.

 

With Nelle Lee’s razor sharp recontextualisation of the original story, in the hands of Director, Michael Futcher and brought to us by one of my favourite combinations of talent on stage, not to mention the same gun creative team, shake and stir have done it again.

 

Futcher’s light, precise touches are evident throughout, particularly in the little moments of conversation – a pause, a glance; a response that is recognisable and completely human, however horrifying to some of us – and in the flow of the plot, despite dramatic beat changes, punctuated and highlighted by light and sound (Jason Glenwright and Guy Webster), that make us stop and think (out loud, on more than one occasion, enthusiastic front rowers!), “WOW!” These guys really get it. In fact, in each of shake and stir’s mainstage productions (Animal Farm and 1984 preceded Tequila Mockingbird), I’ve wondered whether or not they are selling themselves short by focusing on education instead of world tours (in fact, I’ve asked them about it!), but HOLD ON. STOP. WAIT JUST A GODAMN COTTON-PICKING MINUTE.

 

How lucky are we that this company focuses on education, and on getting it right for students and teachers?! AND IN JUST FOUR WEEKS?! I know, that’s impressive too, right? The secret? Look, I don’t know, I’ll ask them next time we talk. Maybe they don’t actually sleep. But they are also OLD THEATRE SOULS in new, agile, energetic bodies and minds that can’t stop because they LOVE IT. We see that quite clearly, which makes it a joy to experience anything they do. You think I’m raving? Damn right! Have you booked your tix yet?

 

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Beneath the towering paper walled set, we are introduced to some teeny tiny characters – Australian not American  – all running from something, but only to begin with. They grow and seem to fill the space…until a violent street verdict makes a mockery of the jury’s decision and what was considered a fair trial for an Indian doctor, new to town, accused of assaulting a young girl, and they disappear again. A blatant Bundaberg reference, thrown neatly into the doctor’s opening lines, gets a few gasps and we realise that with this production these guys are here to do business. It’s not just a new take on To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s something else entirely.

 

Strong performances, and thankfully no stereotypes, and truly delightful in her wicked, trashy ways, was Barb Lowing, like Disney’s stepmother to Rapunzel in Tangled, all bark and all bite. Mother knows best? Terrifying! To balance this dastardly character, and prove once again her versatility and formidable talent (yes, remember you were blown away – but not surprised – by Lowing’s masterful performance in The China Incident?), she draws out two other contrasting characters, the self-righteous neighbour, and the friendly kitchen-fail publican. I always remind students to take note of Lowing’s performances; she’s all class, even when her characters are anything but!

 

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Bryan Proberts takes on the Atticus Finch figure, a Sydney lawyer who’s dragged his son out of his Sydney school before he sells any more pot at school. Hang on, that sounds familiar! But here, on the Sunshine Coast, I guess the easier transfer was to Maroochydore SHS! Ha! Isn’t it great to reconnect with old friends on Facebook?! You know who you are! The son is Charlie, played by Nick Skubij (he also plays Dan, the non-committal mate who props up the pub’s counter), and their relationship is beautifully discovered. It’s a nice role for Skubij, who totally gets the bored teen and plays for long enough around the edges of it so that the maturity and strength of character we see towards the end comes as no surprise. It’s beautifully measured.

 

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Ross Balbuziente gets gruff and grubby, as the recently retrenched outback bastard who shows us how not to treat a girl. He’s frightening and revolting, and entirely recognisable. And not just from a stint in Mt Isa. Nelle Lee is the victim in a relationship she is clearly at odds with; we feel like shouting to her, “GET OUT! GET OUT NOW! HE’S NO GOOD FOR YOU!” and Shannon Haegler the new doctor, in rough-as-guts Stanton (but sadly, it could be any Aussie outback town) that has, proudly and defiantly, only one type of rice. And that’s white.

 

There is nothing to fault in any of the performances, nor in the design, context or text itself, which I’d love to see on the page. Hello, Playlab? Tequila Mockingbird is indeed, “a new Australian play” in its best form, from our boldest, most confident young company. I hope you see it before Election Day a-hem September 7.

 

28
Jul
13

1001 Nights

1001 Nights

QTC & Queensland Music Festival

In Association With Zen Zen Zo

Bille Brown Studio

18 – 28 July 2013

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

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Aladdin. Ali Baba. The names are as well-known as the stories behind them. They resonate down through the ages and across vast oceans. They whisper the promise of adventure, exoticism and romance, from their ancient roots among the shifting sands to the bedside of every child.

 

Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre joins traditional Persian musicians Pezhvak, for an evening of riveting storytelling, dance and song based around the Middle-Eastern magic of 1001 Nights. Adapted by Michael Futcher and Helen Howard, resident directors of Zen Zen Zo, this production blends together a storytelling troupe that weaves words to charm and delight.

 

Backed by the authentic sounds of traditional instruments including the oud, the dohol and the kamanche, this energetic and enchanting show embraces Zen Zen Zo’s legendary physicality.

 

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A simply shared, ingeniously sumptuous production, told in the style of Vikram and the Vampire, and showcasing the talents of Dan Crestini, Gavin Edwards, Steven Rooke, Isabella Tannock and Tina Torabi on stage, as well as the Pezhvak Traditional Music Ensemble, 1001 Nights is a treat for the senses…sans fragrance of the sandalwood mentioned on more than one occasion (I’m sure the budget didn’t stretch that far. Burning sandalwood oil is expensive!).

 

Against a sparse setting of sand and the semblance of a structure to serve as multiple settings, and utilising rich fabrics – brocade of silver and gold – for everything from tablecloth to flowing cloak to tailored coat, and oil drums, some pots and the power of our imaginations, the famous tales of the Arabian nights are shared with passion and the type of physical theatre and vocal mastery that we’ve come to expect from Zen Zen Zo. (Designer Bill Haycock and Lighting Designer Ben Hughes).

 

From the very first strains of Persian traditional music, and as the lights dim, we are already enraptured – snared – and ready to take the journey, to be transported to another time, another place; an exotic land of impossible dreams and intolerable violence in retaliation for offences that would have our contemporary crims out of irons after a short stint of leisure activities including improvisation, or studies of Shakespearean text.

 

Adapted by Michael Futcher and Helen Howard, and directed by Futcher, 1001 Nights suffers only from Zen Zen Zo’s indulgence in too many stories. It’s too long, perhaps by two or three tales. We are restless. We are enthralled, and enraptured, and restless. The stories are intriguing, the performances are A1 and very often the characters featured are, in turn, funny and infuriating. I wonder about what could be omitted; such an incredible wealth of material has already been so cleverly condensed. At times, in between tales, it’s the music that holds up the pace, but it’s so beautiful, we are forgiving of these pauses, when the actors appear to have to wait for the musicians, who momentarily, and quite rightly, claim centre stage for the opening of Act 2. (Musical Direction Phil Slade).

 

It’s funny and confusing. My favourite is The Little Hunchback. I listened to the podcast so I knew the story. I knew he wasn’t really dead. It was funny when he danced! The music and the voices are beautiful proper storytelling music and voices. When can we see it again? Poppy Eponine

 

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We were warned that the Genie may be quite frightening, but Poppy wasn’t frightened. She likened the Genie to The Wizard of Oz, with his booming, reverberating voice and wicked face on a stick, held high above the ensemble by one of its members. “It’s a trick, a theatre trick.” When we talked about it she said, “Well, maybe it would have been frightening for a little kid.” Poppy is seven, so by “little” she means a child of three or four.

 

This is a strong, tight-knit ensemble, their collective vocal and physical talent is impressive, and with its stunning design and the addition of – truly magical – live traditional music, you would expect this production to enjoy a longer run. I just love what Artistic Director of the Queensland Music Festival, James Morrison, has to say in his notes about Futcher securing a run for this production during QMF. Morrison says there was no pitch, no story board; “he simply had Pezhvak play and said the words ‘1001 Nights’…I was instantly hooked and wanted to sit on a rug and hear the stories.”

 

Let’s hope 1001 Nights will be resurrected at some stage as a touring show. It would be a hit with secondary schools, if they ever had time to see it! Or perhaps it could be made available on the corporate circuit. I’m serious! This is the type of themed entertainment that we are being asked each year to create for major fundraising events! Teachers, parents and event managers, keep an ear to the ground, because if 1001 Nights comes around again you’d be foolish to miss it!

 

And if you’re very lucky, with no other plans this afternoon, you just might secure the last remaining tickets to the final performance today at 3pm.

 

AND just because I love it, and I couldn’t see any Pezhvak on YouTube, here’s an homage to the gorgeous (and hilarious) Bollywood moment!

 

19
May
13

Animal Farm

Animal Farm

shake & stir

QPAC Cremorne

15th – 25th May 2013

 

 Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.

 

In a recent Lowy Institute poll, 60 per cent of Australians are now indifferent to democracy while only 39 per cent of 18 to 29-year-olds believe democracy is preferable to other forms of government.

This is the return season of shake and stir’s adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I didn’t see the original production so I was determined to get to it this time. Directed by Michael Futcher, and designed by Brisbane’s theatrical Dream Team (Josh McIntosh, Jason Glenwright & Guy Webster), this is a powerful political production, true to the text, nicely adapted by Nick Skubij. Originally published in 1944, Animal Farm tracks events leading up to the Russian Revolution, and explores allegorically, Communism under Stalin.

 

The only problem I have with this production is its conclusion. Up until the final sixty seconds or so, this is shake and stir at their provocative, political, theatrical best, with the perfect combination of some of Brisbane’s best actors and a deft director’s hand to bring this morality tale into context for new (and returning) audiences. While the story is bookended beautifully by the use of animated shadow imagery (the opening is gruesome and it’s perfect), the final picture doesn’t seem to have a strong enough impact. But when I spoke to others they were surprised that I’d even mentioned it.

 

A ninety-minute actors’ boot camp, Animal Farm is a must-see for students and teachers of performance and design, but also for anybody who enjoys a good story told exceptionally well. This is theatricality of the best sort, for the purpose of powerful storytelling. Whether we learn a lesson or not, we enjoy the process and when it’s over it’s not; we have masses to talk about and we’re pleased to have made the effort to get out of the house and into the theatre.

 

Animal Farm

The cast is superb, with the founders and creators of shake and stir at its core (Nelle Lee, Ross Balbuziente and Nick Skubij), and Bryan Probets and Timothy Dashwood completing an impressive, multi-skilled ensemble. The physically and vocally demanding characters are switched on and off masterfully, with the actors’ animal gestures and sounds truly replicating a farmyard’s activity and cacophony, complete with tin pail percussion and lots of mud!

 

The chilling soundscape and original score, designed by Guy Webster, adds the edge to this production, as does an imposing set, by Josh McIntosh, giving us the dizzying heights of progress and the simple spaces that are home to the workers who make progress possible. The actors utilise ladders, levels, doors, windows, and all sorts of hidden spaces to keep the pace going, when a less imaginative company might fuss with superfluous costume and set changes. In fact, this is the most detailed and economically designed production I’ve seen in place in the Cremorne, and even more impressive than that, is the fact that this same set has fit (and will continue to fit) into different venues across the country! McIntosh is clearly a Lego Master Builder from way back. Jason Glenwright’s cinematic layered lighting design swings between The Wizard of Oz and The Twilight Zone, such is his uncanny sense of exactly what it is we need to see. Is there any other creative team in town so in synch with every aspect of production as well as each other? If there is I’m yet to see the evidence elsewhere in so slick a show.

 

Animal Farm is exemplary in its theatricality, a perfect storytelling model for teachers and makers of theatre, a chilling reminder for all of us of the dangers of ignorance and apathy when it comes to governance, and another feather in shake and stir’s green cap. Michael Futcher’s keen eye for detail and his easy-going directing style are in evidence in every aspect of the show. Don’t be the one who misses it this time around.

 

The Brisbane season (until May 25th) kicks off the Queensland leg of a national tour so if you’re located outside of the city (teachers and community theatre peeps I’m looking at YOU), and you see this one coming soon to a theatre near you, GO. I may even go again… IN KAWANA. SEE YOU THERE SUNSHINE COAST!