Nicholas Starte: The process of stepping into the role of such an iconic member of Australia’s history must be confronting. Has that affected your process compared to previous characters you’ve played?
Blake Erickson: I’ve played historical figures before and I find the process easier than creating a character from scratch, to be honest. Their life history is laid out before you, first-hand accounts of who they are and how they responded to events exist so you have a kind of blueprint for a character before you even begin. That said, this isn’t a historical re-enactment. This is a dramatic story based on real events. Cook is a colossal figure in British history, but in Australia and elsewhere his legacy is often linked with the tragedy of European invasion and imperialism. Between those extremes existed a human being and that’s what I’m interested in.
Why do you think this relatively unknown part of Cook’s history is important to Australian audiences today?
Absolutely. Australia has a lot of soul searching to do, the process of reconciling our history is ongoing. Cook didn’t discover Australia, New Zealand, the islands of the South Pacific or anywhere else inhabited by people. He was the point of first contact between the British and indigenous peoples across the world. What’s significant about Between Worlds is it allows this first-contact story to be heard from the side of indigenous Hawaiians. I think it’s really important that Australians don’t think of British explorers as “us” and indigenous people as “them”. I hope this show makes Australians pause and consider the side of history they’ve perhaps automatically aligned themselves with.
As an actor, what is your favourite part of developing new works?
It’s pretty darn cool when you’re the first person to perform new material, or better yet have material written especially for you. But more than that you get to help own the production in a way that you can’t when you receive the final script and get directed and choreographed into it. It’s the difference between wearing something tailor made and buying something off the rack.
Having been involved in a number of workshops of this piece, how has it developed from your first experience, to now?
I’ve worked on the development of many, many, many new Australian musicals. This is probably my tenth workshop of a new musical, this is my third on Between Worlds alone and I knew from the very beginning that Between Worlds was special. The marriage of musical styles between European music theatre and traditional Polynesian harmonies was utterly captivating from the get-go. The show is also a study in the frailty of people, and how a relentless desire to secure a legacy can prove lethal. I’m thrilled that with each workshop it just has gone from strength to strength and I’m so excited for people to see the show. Something I do not say about every show. Ahem.
How can you relate to this portrayal of Cook?
I’ve spent a lot of time in the Pacific region. I’ve travelled through French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Fiji, Hawaii, Wallis et Futuna, and spent a bit of time in Papua New Guinea as a kid. It’s a part of the world that is extremely close to my heart. Cook loved the Pacific, he literally idolised Polynesian culture in a way no European had ever done before. He’s also a man who feels that he has unfinished business, and I think any actor if they’re honest would tell you that no matter what you may have done it’s all about what’s coming up over the horizon. I’m just fortunate that what lies ahead is this beautiful show. Now, Nic, some questions for you…
Blake Erickson: In a workshop how much influence does a performer have over the development of a new show?
Nicholas Starte: I think, like it or not, just having a work spoken out loud by actors for the first time brings out a whole new dimension. Fortunately for us, Nick, Gareth and Jason have given us a rare opportunity; a workshop space that feels extremely safe, where ideas are encouraged. I love this way of working and I think actors can be an author’s greatest resource, because it’s a chance to hear their characters fought for individually and not just looked at as a whole.
What’s been your favourite part of the process of workshopping a new Australian work like Between Worlds?
I love discussion. And anyone who has been in one of these workshops with me will know, this is easily my favourite part of the process. Talking about themes, coming up with ideas, problem solving, it’s just the best! I just have to reign in my excitement from time to time.
What do you see as the relevance of a musical about the death of captain cook to contemporary Australian audiences?
It really comes from the fact that this is not just a story about Captain Cook, at least, not the Cook we know from primary school. This story is about cultural conflict, seeing other cultures through the gaze of our own and the need for empathy, something that, frankly, is lacking today. We may be more exposed to other cultures and ways of life than ever before, but if anything, we’ve grown more ignorant of them. This play is a chance to see both sides of the story and also hear the part of Cook’s story we never heard as kids.
Just how difficult is the Hawaiian language component of the role?
Look, I’m not gonna lie, it’s a struggle, not just because it’s a foreign language, but it’s a dialect that has very little material for reference. While the language is still alive, the way it is spoken and the way many Hawaiians speak English has become very diluted. We’ve been taking accent inspiration from Polynesian and Maori accents and used the rules of the language itself to dictate the way we speak, but mate… those single syllable diphthongs are doing my head in!
How familiar were you with the historical events that form the basis for our play?
I was in the position I think most Australian audiences will be on first seeing this show. No bloody idea mate.
Blake Erickson and Nicholas Starte are appearing in the rehearsed workshop performances of Between Worlds the musical.
Dates: 15 – 16 July, 2017