5 Questions with John Michael Burdon and Patrick Howard

John Michael Burdon

Patrick Howard: What about this play drew you to it and led to your auditioning for it?
John Michael Burdon: In 23 years of theatre, I have never had the opportunity (until now) to work on a truly contemporary written piece that really transforms the idea of what we expect queer theatre to be. The fact that it is a verbatim piece and is telling the stories of real people yet maintaining a certain theatricality to it is not something we see every day as an actor. And I truly do try to push my personal boundaries as an actor to find the truth of this play and my character in ways I have never done before so that’s exciting; to have the opportunity to look at a part of myself I’ve always tended to avoid in the past on stage. Plus I’ve always wanted an excuse to wear a leather harness on stage.

The ‘guy’ you’re playing, B, describes himself as an ‘instigator’, and that certainly comes to fruition in the show. How do you relate to playing this role?
My character B, is definitely the most sexually driven and sexually charged character, not only in the play, but also that I have ever performed. As a young man, I was very much the same and lived in the same world of sorts and B, for me, is who I think I would have become, had I not settled down with a partner and become a parent. It’s like playing an alternative future for me – a “what could have been” scenario had I stayed on the path I was on in my late teens / early twenties.

5 Guys Chillin’ is a bit deep-end in its content at times. Why do you think people should come and see this play, rather than avoid it?
Let’s be honest, this play is graphic. From the stories told to the language used, and the simulated sex scenes and drug use, it is quite hardcore to watch. There’s a sense of voyeurism that borders on intrusion from an audience point of view. But I would also say it’s an exercise in watching bravery on stage from a group of actors who are really trying to bring the truth to stage.  This play is set in London where this particular “scene” is a lot more common, however it is happening in Australia as well. It’s an exploration into the way gay men now connect with each other in a world of apps, instant connections, swipe rights, immediate gratification and easy access. I lived in a world of MSN Chat, gay phone lines like Manhunt & clubs and bars – but this play definitely shows us a new world in the gay community and how the men who live in it, still try to find any connection to other men that they can. 

You’re coming into this show right off the back of playing John in After The Dance at the New. What’s it been like juggling these two very different roles?
It’s been a strange experience, there’s been times when I have gone directly from a 5 Guys Chillin’ rehearsal in the rehearsal room upstairs at the New Theatre to preparing for an evening performance of After The Dance, a Rattigan play set in 1939. Jumping from one to the other has been a challenge. Having said that, the two plays and characters are so very far removed from each other, it’s easy to compartmentalise my “actor brain”. Which is a great thing, because the last thing I need is to jump on stage as John in After The Dance and start talking about the epic sex party in Berlin I went to.

I’m going to throw your question right back at you: what is the most embarrassing situation you’ve found yourself in in performance / rehearsal?
Let’s just say it involved a production of Hair, where I appeared naked on stage. I had eaten something bad the night before and…yeah…

Patrick Howard

John Michael Burdon: What has been the biggest challenge in directing 5 Guys Chillin’?
Patrick Howard: Moving past my crippling lack of self confidence, actually. This is the first time I’ve directed a play on my own in quite a number of years, and having trained and worked since with a very collaborative approach to theatre, I’ve constantly been questioning my style of developing theatrical work is effective when directing a scripted piece. But a few minutes into every rehearsal I’m so at ease, it’s all working out really well and I’m learning a lot! I also knew from the start that, given that movement and choreography are some of my weaker attributes as an artist, making the sex scenes and intimate moments on stage work was going to be a challenge. But, I trusted my strongest skills, and have a great and very generous cast, and we’ve all really come together (so to speak…)

Describe 5 Guys Chillin’ in five words.
Funny, affronting, concerning, honest, human.

What is your experience in verbatim theatre?
Before I studied theatre, I’d done an Honours thesis for my music degree which involved a lot of fieldwork, interviews, transcribing and writing and I really enjoyed that. I first took an interest in verbatim theatre when we did Paul Brown’s Aftershocks and Campion Decent’s Embers in drama school, and that was where I started to see where my interests in qualitative research and theatre could meet. I took it upon myself to make it my own private major study in drama school and developed two verbatim plays about police brutality and student politics, and a surreal ‘documentary musical’ about food and medication, which was produced as part of our graduating production. I’ve worked on quite a number of verbatim and documentary works over the past few years, including Götterdämmerung with my own company, Arrive. Devise. Repeat. I love the idea of sculpting something raw with such truth to become part of some bigger truth, and then finding a way to make that exist in space and time in and interesting way that moves an audience. 5 Guys Chillin’ is tremendously successful in this sense – the characters and drama of the work are compelling through subtext, despite being a collage of interviews. It stays fascinating from beginning to end and there’s no judgement or bias of the stories told at all.

Can you see yourself taking part in one of these parties if you were invited?
To be honest, probably not. The opportunity has been there many times, and I’ve never taken it up. Again, there’s that crippling lack of self-confidence again, but this time with reference to my body. I am very good friends with people who a part of this scene, and through them feel like I have experienced it in a way (I’ve certainly experienced helping cleaning up the aftermath of one…) and while I think the idea of it is great, I have a bit of a hesitation with putting myself in situations where I’m not in control. And obviously, with some of the drugs used in this scene, there’s some substantial risks involved, which gives me another reason to pause for thought.

What is the most embarrassing situation you’ve found yourself in in performance / rehearsal?
I tend to be a bit of a risk taker when it comes to art, so don’t easily find myself embarrassed. As an actor, directors tend to give me notes like, ‘A very bold choice, but…’ and as a director, well, we’ll see…? I think, though, some of my teenage memories probably fit the bill, when I didn’t have any self-confidence and was a terrified closeted little band geek. Having to kiss a girl when I had the lead role in the musical in year nine was a big one. I wanted the ground to eat me up whenever it came up. I remember passing a note to my romantic interest via a friend assuring her I was gay and it didn’t mean anything, but that didn’t make it any easier at all. There were some corker teste-pop notes in that show too, god, and I was singing pop/rock songs and I’m just not cool enough to pull that off at all, even now.

Patrick Howard directs John Michael Burdon in 5 Guys Chillin’ by Peter Darney.
Dates: 12 – 15 Sep, 2017
Venue: New Theatre