5 Questions with Chris Miller and Jacqui Robson

Chris Miller

Jacqui Robson: What are five words you’d use to describe Lennie Lawson and five words to describe Hugh Lusk?
Chris Miller: Lennie Lawson – Charming, boyish, manipulative, adaptive, psychotic. Hugh Lusk – Determined, confident, altruistic, ambitious, stubborn.

Where on the spectrum of human behaviour would these two men overlap?
More than likely, narcissism. Lawson is pathological and most definitely at the disordered end of the spectrum, lacks empathy and is a slave to his delusions. Lusk is empathetic, yet has a swagger of arrogance to him. Where they overlap is they both suffer from ‘magical thinking’: Lawson in the way he justifies his abhorrent acts of cruelty and Lusk in the way he clutches at straws to build a defence for Louisa Collins when the odds are stacked against him. Where they differ is Lusk has empathy and control whilst Lawson definitely does not.

What has been the hardest thing about playing Lennie?
I’ve done a hell of a lot of research on personality disorders and the Dark Triad (psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism). It’s really heavy stuff. I’ve been exploring which spectrums I sit on, and ramping them up and walking around in public to get a feel for it… and it’s crook. I’m a naturally empathetic kid, so switching into psycho mode and exploring egocentric, sadistic magical thinking is not without its detriment. I’ve had to counterbalance with meditation and positive affirmations, which has actually been awesome as well. So it’s double edged. That, and I have to be consciously aware of not creeping out the cast and crew because I’m in so deep. Either way… it’s real juicy.

What’s it like being in these two productions at the same time?
Awesome! I freakin’ love it. Two totally different characters, pushed to the max, and a sensational team of directors, cast and crew. Jacqui (and the rest of the cast) are so talented, giving and supportive. Also, it’s a different experience playing real people of history. The back story is done for me; it almost feels like I’m allowing them in to possess me and, of course, I get to decorate the cake with Miller-isms. The main thing is just vehemently telling the truth.

Would Hugh Lusk take on Lennie Lawson as a client?
Hmmm, as ambitious as Lusk is, and although he fights for the underdog, Lawson is an abhorrent violent criminal with zero chance of redemption. The evidence is so stacked against him and cut and dry. So, my answer is no. It would be morally incongruent for Lusk to take the case.

Jacqui Robson

Chris Miller: What draws you to playing characters such as Jean Turnbull, June Dally Watkins and Louisa Collins?
Jacqui Robson: Each of these real-life women were caught up in extreme circumstances and I am grateful for the chance to explore their behaviours, and creatively make choices based on what I can only guess at why they did what they did. They are all complex and, in these stories, they experience terrible tragedies in different ways. I get to play with their strengths and vulnerabilities, but hopefully also honour their experiences.

Tell us about your process to delve deeper to find the truth and embody these characters.
I started with imagining how I would behave in their circumstances, and then try to understand why they acted the way they did. Then I looked into the research. For the Lennie Lawson story, there were helpful articles about the Lennie Lawson attack on SCEGGS that gave me some clues into Headmistress Jean Turnbull’s character and choices. There’s also plenty of content on June Dally Watkins around to give a guideline into her personality. How they behaved with Lennie Lawson is how I imagine I would have in those circumstances. (I might not have been as hardcore heroic as Jean Turnbull, though I’d like to think so.)

Louisa Collins is more difficult. She’s enigmatic. Playwright Gina Schien loaned me her copy of The Last Woman Hanged by Caroline Overington. It’s a brilliant collection of primary research with many contradictions in observations about how Louisa behaved, so I’ve found it challenging to make any decisions about her. She constantly surprises me. I’m making the best choices I can, so I just hope that I represent her as truthfully and compassionately as possible.

What’s the difference that you find in playing imaginary characters compared to actual women of history?
Playing real women of history brings with it a great amount of responsibility to represent them and their actions truthfully and accurately. History is decided by others so maybe it’s impossible to ever really do this, but I still try. Fictional characters are a lot more freeing and I care a lot less about what others’ think of my interpretation. If people don’t like my choices, I can’t do much about it and can’t worry about it.

Why act?
I bloody wish I knew. It’s like being on drugs. The creative highs are amazing. The lows – the poverty, rejection, artistic failure, bad reviews, objectification, inability to plan life – all suck immensely. Honestly, if I could get my creative kicks some other way, I bloody would.

What is your dream role and why?
I just like to be doing something, chasing something, acting in pursuit of that something. Give me a role in which I have a job to do. Preferably in a great ensemble piece with amazing dialogue. My favourite plays and shows are the ones where there are at least five people talking. I love to contribute to a symphony of fantastic dialogue in an electric scene where everyone is fighting for something (e.g. an episode of The West Wing, or Tracy Lette’s August: Osage County). My creative north star is probably Allison Janney playing CJ Cregg in The West Wing.

Chris Miller and Jacqui Robson are appearing in Deadhouse: Tales Of Sydney Morgue.
Dates: 24 April – 19 May, 2018
Venue: The Rocks Discovery Museum

Review: Bully Boy (Blood Moon Theatre)

nightofplayVenue: Blood Moon Theatre (Potts Point NSW), Mar 10 – 26, 2016
Playwright: Sandi Toksvig
Director: Deborah Mulhall
Cast: Patrick Cullen, Jaymie Knight

Theatre review
Plays about the consequences of war appear frequently, because their message never seems to speak loudly enough to overwhelm what governments are able to have us believe. On any given day, it only takes a two-minute news report on any broadcast media to convince us of sending troops to fight in places we know virtually nothing about, for reasons that are contentious at best. Rich or poor, East or West, cultures everywhere engage in warfare as though a completely natural part of human nature. We send young people away, understanding the risks but convinced that the honour of the exercise makes it all worthwhile.

Sandi Toksvig’s Bully Boy reveals the damage inflicted on our soldiers, as well as the camaraderie built under circumstances of trauma and suffering. Its context might not be original, but this is a piece of writing that provides access to a deeper psychological understanding of the destruction being continuously dispensed. Toksvig’s characters are British, but they represent the humanity of military personnel everywhere, beyond exteriors of stoic infallibility.

Barely an adult, Private Eddie Clark is already surrounded by death. Played by Patrick Cullen, the character is authentic, complex and moving. Cullen’s powerful performance provides heart and soul to a production that relies on little more than its two actors to tell its story. Jaymie Knight looks to be half the age of his role, and takes time to make Major Oscar Hadley a convincing presence. The actor is stronger in scenes of intense emotion, but the challenge of truthfully depicting someone under decades of anguish is evident. Nevertheless, the couple is energetic and compelling, with director Deborah Mulhall keeping things lively and pacey. Mulhall’s clever use of space liberates the simple two-hander format, but emotions can be portrayed with greater specificity, and scene transitions could be managed with better flair for stronger plot and narrative effectiveness.

It is hard to imagine a world where we no longer deliver our young to the battlefield. Horrors are a fact of life, and we learn to co-exist, but one of the things that art can do, is to wake the sleeping dogs. Art prevents us from indulging in delusions and convenient misbeliefs, while others lay victimised by our ignorance. Bully Boy and other tales of tragedy may not be able to bring us world peace, but they are sometimes the only thing we can count on to remind us of truths that many want to keep buried.

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Review: The Punter’s Siren (Blood Moon Theatre)

blancmangeVenue: Blood Moon Theatre (Potts Point NSW), Feb 17 – Mar 4, 2016
Playwright: Gina Schien
Director: Stephen Carnell
Cast: Jacqui Robson, Laura Viskovich
Image by Phyllis Wong

Theatre review
Originally conceived as a one-woman play, Gina Schien’s The Punter’s Siren is presented here with an additional actor giving life to the monologue’s secondary character. Instead of letting the protagonist evoke our imagination, the siren is literally materialised on stage by Laura Viskovich, who although says little, is a formidable presence. This creative touch by director Stephen Carnell represents a meaningful gesture that gives power to the play’s sexuality, as though coming out of the closet, its homosexuality lies not only in words, it is irrefutably in existence.

Jacqui Robson’s 50 minutes on stage as Helen, the punter, is scintillating. There are moments where our attention struggles to find focus with an ancillary actor by her side, but her energetic precision never fails to keep us on track with her narrative, engrossed and atingle with excitement. Robson delivers moment after moment of splendid comedy, ranging from subtle impulses that take us by surprise, to loud displays of humorous passion. Her tenacity is relentless, and although the ride she takes us on is ultimately a predictable one, it is full of amusement and exhilarating joy.

The sole driving force of Helen’s story is lust. In Schien’s play, a woman’s libido takes centre stage and its temperament is an aggressive one. Undisguised, unadorned and unashamed, it is her wild desire that gives propulsion to every action in The Punter’s Siren, forcing us to confront the anomaly of its honesty, and we are left wondering what it is about our culture that insists on keeping the universal and everyday truth about strong feminine sexuality, veiled and concealed. Immodesty is star of the show and we are thrilled.

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Review: We Are The Ghosts Of The Future (Blancmange Productions)

ghostsofthefutureVenue: The Rocks Discovery Museum (The Rocks NSW), Nov 12 – 28, 2015
Playwright: Donna Abela, Vanessa Bates, Hilary Bell, Noëlle Janaczewska, Verity Laughton, Ned Manning, Catherine Zimdahl
Director: Harriet Gillies
Cast: Ali Aitken, Darcy Brown, Emily Eskell, Alicia Gonzalez, Robbie King, Leofric Kingsford-Smith, Michael McStay, Celine Oudin, Laurence Rosier-Staines, Cody Ross, Eleni Schumacher, Eliza Scott, Donna Sizer, Pierce Wilcox
Image by Phyllis Photography

Theatre review
The event takes place in an 1835 warehouse. We wander from room to room in the 3 storey building, eavesdropping on the inhabitants of a boarding house. It is 1935, and in the privacy of their own spaces, we encounter their intimate divulgements and dark secrets. We Are The Ghosts Of The Future, transported 80 years back in time, to discover morsels of Australian life, but there are no indigenous characters in sight and we soon realise that this is yet another history lesson about the European experience of the land that we share.

Written by a group of seven, the scripts are diverse in style, each one brief but scintillating in its own way, with intriguing characters and scandalous revelations to hold our attention. A cross dressing policeman, a primitive abortion clinic, and an “idiot savant” ensure that the goings-on are kept spicy and exciting. We may not witness every segment in its entirety due to the unusual format of presentation, but Harriet Gillies’ direction is intuitive and energetic, with an excellent use of space that fascinates our senses. Hugh O’Connor’s production design and Alex Berlage’s lights are simple but highly effective in their creation of a mysteriously evocative atmosphere. The work is beautifully performed by a committed cast whose confident and idiosyncratic presences provide an engaging, often fascinating show.

It is now the twenty-first century. Telling stories of our past must no longer exclude the original inhabitants of Australia. Their invisibility in our historical memories is a problem that must be addressed, and productions like this are a perfect way to re-frame our self-image as a nation that will acknowledge and encompass the truths as understood by our Aboriginal counterparts. European histories are important in how we see ourselves, but there is a pressing need to react against the ethnic heterogeneity in our theatres, especially when dealing with issues of identity and history. For a brighter future, there is a need for our collective memories to derive from diverse cultures, not least of which are stories by the traditional owners of this land. The ghosts that haunt us should be given a voice, so that the wrongs of the past may begin to be exorcised, and our path forward can then be lived with greater dignity.

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Review: A Property Of The Clan (Blood Moon Theatre)

bloodmoonVenue: Blood Moon Theatre (Potts Point NSW), Sep 29 – Oct 17, 2015
Playwright: Nick Enright
Director: Phillip Rouse
Cast: George Banders, Megan Drury, Jack Starkey, Samantha Young
Image by Phyllis Wong

Theatre review
Nick Enright’s A Property Of The Clan first appeared in 1992. It was the precursor to his more famous Blackrock, both of which were written in response to the murder of a 14 year-old Australian schoolgirl. The play is mainly concerned with our youth, and how misogyny becomes an entrenched part of Australian culture through its early permeation into children’s lives at school and at home. It is a serious subject matter that retains its resonance in 2015. The characters are not obsessed with mobile phones and social media, but their desires and prejudices are no different. We observe a group of teenagers finding their place in society, acquiring values, and growing up. The circumstances in which they find themselves are exceptionally traumatic, but we recognise their hardship to be symptomatic of teenage life in general, and are made to consider the ways ideals and beliefs are reinforced at that sensitive age. The play is about what happens in the formative years, and the lifelong repercussions thereafter.

Direction by Phillip Rouse is restricted by a problematic space, with its tiny stage, awkward entrances and restrictive technical facilities, but his inventiveness shines through. Reducing the play to its essentials, but adding visual flourishes where possible, Rouse is able to make personalities and narratives effective, while creating an environment that feels energetic and nuanced. There are significant problems with lighting and blocking that cause distraction, but the powerful sincerity in the piece ultimately wins over its audience. Performances are strong and the cast is evenly pitched. The adult players approach their teenage roles with integrity and a surprising authenticity that allow us to identify with each of them and to sympathise with their experiences. Megan Drury is especially memorable in both her parts as Rachel and Diane. Her transformations from one to the other are fluently executed, and the balance she achieves between the divergent qualities of youth and gravity is beautifully measured.

The kids learn about discrimination at school, but they struggle to recognise the powers at play in their own spheres. We can talk about all the pressing issues of our times, evangelising on education, parenting, domestic violence and feminism, but the challenge is to make changes to the defects in our culture, and to find real solutions for the problems that we have. There is a gender issue we must address, and the way we teach girls and boys about their differences are in need of a revolution.

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5 Questions with Stephen Carnell

stephencarnellWhat is your favourite swear word?

Fuckstick.

What are you wearing?

Pyjamas.

What is love?

An irresistible attraction that lasts.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?

Can’t remember, so no stars.

Is your new show going to be any good?

It’ll be hilarious!
Read Suzy’s review here.

 

Stephen Carnell is producer and director of Spring Comedy Double Bill.
Show dates: 27 Aug – 7 Sep, 2013
Show venue: TAP Gallery

Spring Comedy Double Bill (Blancmange Productions)

summerofbloodVenue: TAP Gallery (Darlinghurst NSW), Aug 27 – Sep 7, 2013

Brad Checks In
Playwright: Paula Noble
Director: Steven Tait
Actors: Chris Miller, Sam Smith, Katherine Shearer, Laura Holmes, Jim Gosden, Katrina Rautenberg

Summer Of Blood
Playwright: Robert Armstrong
Director: Stephen Carnell
Actors: Brennan Muhoberac, Chris Miller, Katherine Shearer, Laura Holmes, Jim Gosden

Theatre review
Two comedies that have very little in common thematically are staged successively over 3 hours. Both are structured almost like film scripts with numerous scene changes and emphasis on character development. Four of the actors appear in both shows, displaying range by taking on drastically different roles.

Brad Checks In deals with relationships in the modern era of online social networking. It is a familiar premise that many would easily relate to, but the play strangely features a central character entwined in a web with three women’s affections, without establishing or explaining his appeal. There are however, enjoyable performances, including Katherine Shearer’s Di who is dynamic and mischievous, and the only female character who was not entirely defined in terms of her relationship with the main character Brad. Sam Smith plays a womanising cad with charm and humour with a more naturalistic approach that contrasts well with the rest of the cast.

Summer Of Blood showcases a cast of manic characters, with frequently funny results. Laura Holmes delivers the biggest laughs with her confident comedic abilities. Chris Miller’s exhilarating performance is crucial to the liveliness of the play, setting the bar for his co-actors in terms of energy levels. Brennan Muhoberac is utterly convincing as an adult virgin who becomes increasingly tainted by greed. Director Stephen Carnell uses film effectively and relevantly, interplaying with live action in a memorable section of the play. Film geeks will relish in the facts and trivia introduced into the script, with references ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to Mary Harron. This is a satisfying, albeit messy romp about genre film, and the aspirations of people in the B-movie industry, but audiences will remember it for the schlocky blood letting, colourful characters and the many laughs it delivers.

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