Sunday, July 28, 2013

Portrait of the Artist as a Bearded Man (2/2)


The Encore Theatre Company performs its plays at the Clayton Community Centre, which has a 135-seat theatrette attached to a library, a gym, a swimming pool and is opposite the electoral office of Simon Crean, funnily enough. As a performance space, it's aces, but you don't rehearse there. The rehearsal space is a converted indoor basketball court a short drive away; uninsulated and as a result, creates an atmosphere akin to rehearsing in a meat locker. Your best work doesn't come out when you're trying to remember your lines, all the while trying to keep the blood circulating in your feet to prevent your frostbitten toes falling off.

The day Keith held open auditions back in May, I showed up to read with the chaps who wanted parts. I was pre-cast, so I had nothing to worry about, except right from the word go I was convinced I was shithouse at it. Right from the start I was thinking, they're all better at this than me. They'll resent me for being pre-cast when I'm not that good. As you might gather, I set myself a high water mark right off the bat. That first audition was slick, fast, small and complete within minutes. Tim Byron as Jock (playing older), Greg Barrison as Gerry (playing sleazy). Tim's not been at this for long, but OWNS this play. Greg's never auditioned for anything before, just made a habit out of doing pantomimes and having scripts sent to him. Keith's got Geoff Arnold lined up for Ted, who was finishing up August: Osage County - doing what a lot of folks do, which is jump out of one production and dive right into the next one. Geoff's literally done more plays than he can remember, and is an example of better living through chemistry. Scott Broadfoot as Geoff, who shows up with professional screen credits. He's been on the tele (Neighbours, Underbelly and whatnot). He has an agent and everything. Pressure. Matthew Coote in the thankless role of Danny, who shows up in the thing three times and spends most of the play backstage. He's also got an agent and just landed a role in a film. So every other person involved in this play has more experience than me. More pressure.

Learning lines is tough. It's only recently - after several months - that I've picked up a book that isn't the script. Every train journey, small space at work, lying on the couch at home or waiting for friends to arrive at the pub had me going over the lines. Hoping that rote learning will get the job done. I speak 279 lines of dialogue in this play, which covers a total of 14 pages, and is 4563 words. Some of them are single word lines, like 'Yes!', or 'Rubbish!' Then there are more challenging bits, like ' despite what your economics books tell you, I'm not entirely convinced that pragmatism's absolutely irreversible.' Because people say things like that all the time. There are moments in rehearsal when you think you've got it down, and you don't, and you worry that you'll never remember it all. But you do. Somehow. I was convinced several times that Keith would have to take me aside very quietly and gently let me off the hook for being the crappy weight that would sink this vessel, but it never happened. There's a moment where something snaps, or clicks, and it's just embedded there. You block your scenes, you do small sections of acts first, then whole acts, then the whole thing. You make do with what you have, you try to build on your performance. As part of my preparation, I look in the mirror and give line readings, and hope that the performance I give is the performance I would want to see, as a viewer, nee, a critic.

The company is staffed by retirees who serve as volunteers, and the set was constructed in an afternoon by what looked to be the touring company of Dad's Army. We've had some publicity in some local papers, and I was photographed with four of the other actors, with a caption that identified me as 'Matt Revin', for some unimaginable reason. They provide Assorted Cream biscuits for the actors, which is a nice touch.

I have to spend most of the play in a bad mood. I'm basically playing Mick Malthouse here, but a guy in his mid 40s, so to subjugate my youthful countenance, I grew a beard. One, it's set in the 1970s and it's my recollection that everyone had some kind of facial hair in that era. And, two, I just turned 38 and I don't look 38 (I drink lots of water and haven't fathered any children). Needing to look older than 38, the beard makes me look at least ten years older than I usually do.

Being in a foul mood comes pretty easy to me, I have to admit, but there are moments when I have to fly into a volcanic rage. One scene in particular. I hate doing that scene. Hate it. Scott's a really talented, professionally trained actor and he has this way of doing a 1000 yard stare that would make a lamp post feel uncomfortable, and when I'm yelling - all but screaming at him - I feel just awful. He's yelling at me. Why is he angry at me? We were just joking back stage. I'm yelling at him and I don't want to. I don't hate him at all. So this scene has me reach a crescendo where I yell at him about how unless he improves his attitude, I'll drop him to the reserves for the rest of his career. I literally (proper use of the term) cannot yell louder or with more anger and venom than I do. And it's not naturally a go-to response for me. I'm seldom that angry. I do surly well, but not explosive. Each and every time I do it, which took a long time to get to what it ended up being on stage, it's exhausting, and rips my vocal chords apart. I speak like Barry White for a solid two hours after final curtain and am mentally frazzled. So it's a sweet relief that I can sit down and just all-but chill for the remainder of the play, until I have to yell at Greg/Gerry about what an oily little weasel he is. I get to drink on stage at this point (iced tea in a scotch bottle) and I think if I had to do anything more than what I do, it'd all be a bit much.

We did 11 performances. Some performances were better than others, some audiences were better than others. Second to last one was an ill-conceived Saturday matinee where the audience outnumbered the cast by two people. Disheartening to say the least. On the other hand, one earlier performance had friends of mine giggling every time I called someone a turd, and cheered when I said 'Bullshit!', because apparently they thought they were at a pantomime.

The thing with this business is, you don't do it with the hope of scaling the heights of fame, being discovered and then being cast in a film which gets you representation at William Morris; the next thing you know, you're Eric Bana or Russell Crowe or Cate Blanchett or someone else. It is, for the lack of a better word, a hobby. A pastime. You'll invariably be performing for a small crowd of octogenarians who're dozy after a steady diet of Mogadon sandwiches and lamingtons, and the only reward you'll get out of it is the satisfaction of a job well done. Once you get your mind around the fact that you're not getting paid for it, it's a most pleasant way to spend some time. It's also the equivalent of what the Brits call 'rep', learning the craft in real situations, giving it professional attention and devotion. The only thing that differentiates what's done on community stages as opposed to professional ones is the money. The Club was directed by someone who has been acting for 45 years and done in excess of 150 shows, but nobody with any connections to professional theatre shows up. Their loss.

I've been through somestuff this past year. Had a lot of thinking to do, a lot ofstuff to process. The thing about being on stage is that when you're out there, there's a surge of adrenaline and there is nothing outside that scene that permeates. The disappointments of your life, the traumas and stresses don't so much evaporate as disappear altogether and you're nothing more than that guy in that situation, with that beard, and your motivation is nothing more than getting it done, and well. You have to stay on your toes in case someone in the cast takes a mid-play elocution safari or just forgets their lines. It's happened more than once. I've delivered the wrong lines; Geoff sometimes looks at you in a way that suggests, 'Well, I can't find what I need right now, you have a go!', and in our second Sunday matinee, Tim did a mid-show edit by accidentally dropping an entire page of dialogue from his performance. The thing is, nobody in the audience notices and everyone on stage thinks (in hindsight) that it's hilarious. We never got it perfect. But it's the arts: is there a perfect to be got?

We've got some good feedback. People who saw the thing liked it and seemed to get value for money. A man who looked about 103 told me that he thought the first act was boring, but the second act lifted enough that he enjoyed himself. My advice to him was to register his grievances with David Williamson, not me. Another lady told me I was 'so very noble.'

That's all very rewarding to know, but the thing is, I'm doing this for me, and it's been great to know that I can do justice to a great part in a great play. Creatively, it's hit all the right notes in me. I'll not do another one for at least a year or so, but for this one I've felt I've added something, been a part of something good. I've felt a sense of camaraderie, felt a sense of responsibility, engaged in a rewarding routine and helped to build something good.

So, no cigar-chomping talent agent spotted me. So, Martin Scorsese wasn't in the crowd. So what? Their loss. I had fun.
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