5 Questions with Tel Benjamin and Jennifer Rani

Tel Benjamin

Jennifer Rani: Tell me about a work of art you’ve experienced, of any art form, that changed you in some way.
Tel Benjamin: Lord, there are so many but three jump out as having had particularly profound effects on my life. Jim Carrey’s seminal 1994 classic The Mask was the first film I watched (on repeat) that triggered the realisation that being an actor was an actual occupation and you could do it for a living. I used to do a bunch of the musical numbers and scenes from that film and others at the bus stop with my mum or dad and it was kind of like ‘Damn, you can do this for work? Why isn’t everyone doing this?’. Steppenwolf’s 2010 production of August, Osage County at STC completely blew my mind. It raised the bar immensely for my expectations of what theatre could be and got me thinking more critically about stage craft than I had in the past. I still remember how I felt leaving that theatre. Finally, Cormac McCarthy’s short novel Child Of God opened me up to how prose can have a musical quality and rhythm and how line breaks, punctuation and breaking the rules of those conventions can elicit an emotional response. I try to remember that in any prose style writing I do for film treatments or the like. Blood Meridian is also a must read. You asked for one, I gave you three, I’m sorry!

The play’s title is Extinction Of A Learned Response. What is a learned response you’ve developed at some time in your life that would save you in an apocalypse?
Okay. Are we talking zombies? Or just a regular old Nuclear winter? If it’s zombies, you definitely want me in your colony because I’ve read Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide. Did you know, one of the most important items to have in a zombie apocalypse is ear plugs, because the incessant moaning from the undead can drive you mad? I did. Cos I read the book. But reading a book isn’t really a learned response is it. I’m a pretty good mediator and have some decent leadership skills so I could probably keep morale up and stop the group from eating each other. No promises.

Describe a creative work you haven’t yet made that is closest to your heart.
I’ve had quite a colourful upbringing, growing up in housing commissions with a rich close family history of addiction and crime. There’s a project I’m usually thinking about and often come back to that delves into and explores that world. It’s still very early development but it’s either an hour long format crime drama series or a feature film. I think it’s set in the inner west of Sydney during the heroin boom of the 90s, probably in and around a housing commission. Maybe spans to Cabramatta and involves a group of young teens who find a gun and don’t know what to do with it? I’ll make it one day. Get me on the hotline bling, SBS!

So you’re an actor, award winning screenwriter and director. Following a creative path can be a hard life to navigate, what keeps you coming back to it and do you ever lose faith?
It can be tricky right? This career is a vocation for me, I don’t really consider a life without it. I know that might sound a bit, whatever, but you really need to need to be an actor because it requires immense commitment and can be, as you say, hard to navigate and quite exhausting. I read a couple of years ago that T.S Elliot said “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business”. That resonated because, for me, the lack of control in an actor’s career is the hardest part. Your path is often at the behest of casting directors, producers etc which can leave you feeling kind of helpless. All you can really control is how hard you work, so that’s what I come back to. That’s part of why I started writing and directing film, I think there’s more autonomy in those pursuits. I’m also reminded of why I do it almost every time I’m in a rehearsal room or on set. After our first reading of Extinction I kind of floated home and couldn’t sleep, I was giddy. Not much else does that for me.

Your character in the play could be described as having questionable ethics. If you were sent to jail, what crime would it be for?
Classic Marlow, passing the buck. You’re in on these questionable ethics too! It would be a crime of passion, for sure. I like to think it would be a Robin Hood, steal from the rich and give to the poor type situation. Or like, an overexuberant romantic gesture. Egging bigoted far right-wing politicians feels like a crime worth going to jail for to be honest.

Jennifer Rani

Tel Benjamin: Um, so your Showcast says you are ‘‘Highly skilled in Military culture including: weapons handling; combat training; marching drill.’ Can you please explain how you came to gain those very specific set of skills and if you could utilize them in any action franchise, which would it be?
True! Secret past revealed! I was in the Army and am a highly trained military operative: think SAS Who Dares Wins– lots of running and shouting and “breaking through pain barriers”. It was more a social experiment; it was such a hidden world. I mean, what did the Australian military really do? Where was it like for women? As a young woman of colour navigating a specific, isolated and predominantly male environment was… challenging. Great fodder for character study though and I reckon I’d be right at home in Terminator, Mad Max or Indiana Jones. You’d definitely want me on your team if the world were ending.

Extinction deals with memories and the way they shape your current place in the world. Is there a specific memory from your life that you remember being the catalyst for wanting to be an actor and work in the arts?
I distinctly remember stepping into the streets of Singapore, my mother’s birthplace, for the first time. The smells, the colours the noise and languages, there was something deeply familiar and comforting about it. It felt like home, I’d never had that sort of visceral experience with Australia. So that kinda blew my mind. It was such a relief knowing those ethnic markers were intrinsic to me, even though they weren’t necessarily prevalent during upbringing. It wasn’t the catalyst for wanting to be an actor but it was pivotal to me understanding that story was a way in which I could unravel that experience, that I could create a narrative that I hadn’t previously felt a participant in. The question of whose and what stories we tell, and what they say about our national psyche, underlies this.

You’re a first generation Australian who grew up in Tasmania. Is there a story or aspect of your culture and background that you’re interested in creating work from and exploring as an artist?
Absolutely. My experience growing up in a regional Australian city was like a ‘101’ in cultural confusion – I was one of only two Asian kids at my school! Theatre and the arts opened worlds of possibilities that weren’t available in my everyday, especially the diversity on the art and creative I saw when living overseas. The potential impact of the arts, that it can shift something seismic in you and create space for you is a driving motivation for me. Don’t write off regional cities. Take work there. Support regional artists. Seek them out. Australian stories exist all over the country. Currently I’m developing my maternal ancestral history, traversing South East Asia, England and Wales to Tassie. I hope that this can help deepen my understanding of my heritage and what ‘belonging’ and ‘homeland’ actually look like to me. That experience in Singapore particularly was a stimulant to connecting with my cultures as a first-generation Australian.

How weird are auditions! Got any pre audition rituals or sage advice you’ve been given to keep you focused and in a good headspace?
Weird, but they can also be warm and creative. Nah man, just be prepared and chill. There is so much I can’t control so focusing on my work and managing nerves and expectations is key. Be present, be open and trust yourself – I’ve discovered excellent things in the room by being flexible in my approach. It’s all practice for the right gig. Then chuck the script out.

If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, who would it be and what would you eat?
Mate. This question. Um. Monty Python. I’d make us all toasted cheese and caramelised leek sandwiches and I’d react all the scenes from all the films and we’d have so many laughs. And so many sandwiches.

Tel Benjamin and Jennifer Rani can be seen in Extinction Of The Learned Response, by Emme Hoy.
Dates: 7 – 25 May, 2019
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre

Review: The Maids (Glitterbomb / 25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Aug 25 – Sep 15, 2018
Playwright: Jean Genet (translated by Bernard Frechtmann)
Director: Carissa Licciardello
Cast: Alexandra Aldrich, Skyler Ellis, Amanda McGregor
Images by Jasmin Simmons

Theatre review
Jean Genet’s The Maids is based on a 1933 murder in France. A pair of sisters work as maids in a rich man’s house, isolated from the rest of the world. Their shared oppression turns them monstrous, as they gradually bring to fruition, the heinous contents of their imagination. We may no longer, in the West, have servants of that kind, but it is a story that draws parallels with the many inequalities that persist, or are in fact escalating, in these supposedly modern times. We look at the birth of evil, from evil, and are made to consider the repercussions of a society determined to maintain its hierarchies.

Carissa Licciardello directs an extraordinarily intense and flamboyant production, using Genet’s macabre poetry to inspire a marvellous sense of heightened drama. Three wonderful actors work in perfect tandem, delivering a sensational piece of grotesque theatre, intriguing and powerful with what they bring to the stage. Alexandra Aldrich and Amanda McGregor play the sisters, both commanding in presence, as Claire and Solange, compelling from beginning to end, even when Genet’s writing turns impenetrable and obtuse. Male actor Skyler Ellis takes on the role of Madame with aplomb, demonstrating excellent nuance alongside the role’s predictable extravagance. Watching the maids feud with a man, creates a fresh intellectual dimension, helping the old play speak with more pertinence than it would otherwise have.

Humans have an insatiable desire to control one another. Our thirst for power, when untamed, has the ability to blind us to the fact that people’s freedoms are always essential. Compromises can be reached in all our interactions, of course, but it is clear that transgressions occur frequently, with or without our acknowledgement. The servants have no choice but to submit to the consequences of their poverty, but when people are subjected to conditions unnatural and perverse, it is certain that morbidity will result.

www.dasglitterbomb.com | www.belvoir.com.au

Review: A Period Piece (Glitterbomb / The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 14 – 25, 2017
Playwright: Gretel Vella
Director: Carissa Licciardello
Cast: Mikaela Atallah, Hannah Cheers, Julia Christensen, Clare Hennessy, Mat Lee, Julia Robertson, James Wright
Image by Omnes Photography

Theatre review (of a preview performance)
In Gretel Vella’s A Period Piece, menstruation takes centre stage in each of its madcap episodes. Mischievous and irreverent, its collection of short skits takes a look at the absurd taboo that surrounds the subject, and its significance as a mechanism of misogyny in our daily lives. The work presents entertaining observations, and an important perspective on how society is taught to be afraid and ashamed of women’s bodies, and how that irrational aversion informs the way we have constructed sexism through the ages.

The production, directed by Carissa Licciardello, is delightfully high-spirited, with an energetic cast that zips gleefully from one comedic scene to another. A band of three musicians add even more vibrancy to the atmosphere, playing silly songs that keep us in a giddy mood, while driving home further, the show’s message of female empowerment. Set design by Nick Fry is a simple idea, but fastidiously executed to help illustrate the antiquated values we carry, with unforgivable obstinacy, in order that systems of patriarchy may be upheld.

There is a rawness to A Period Piece that is unapologetic, and very enjoyable. It is an untidy affair, but inviting and joyful, although a more philosophical approach could provide greater depth (and a more lasting impression) to its concerns. When Aristophanes dreamt up the story of Lysistrata and foregrounded the fact that a woman’s womb, and her sexuality, controls all our existence, we should have begun to see that her holding up half the sky is an understatement.

www.dasglitterbomb.com

5 Questions with Julia Christensen and James Wright

Julia Christensen

Julia Christensen

James Wright: Regardless of whether you believe in past lives, what/who would you like to imagine you were in a past life?
Julia Christensen: OK, I really can’t subscribe to believing in anything as utterly ludicrous as past lives, but also I COMPLETELY ONE HUNDO-PERCENTO BELIEVE I WAS A GENTLE TEXAN COWBOY. I was a renegade gun-slinger with a deadly aim and heart of gold.

What’s your perfect Sunday? And would it be different if money was no object?
My perfect Sunday involves no deadlines. My current day to day is on a super-tight-ship-shape schedule, so my ideal is wanting what I can’t have. Late morning start and some exercise with an animal (species irrelevant, I’ll walk an axolotl if necessary). Then great coffee, writing, reading and someone with a beautiful mind to talk about life and the world with. Head into rehearsals or see something/be in something on stage, debrief with aforementioned beautiful mind and hopefully passionately disagree with them so we can have a fantastic argument over a house red or four. If money were no object, it would just be a variation on a theme, probably featuring more dogs or teacup pigs and whiskey. While I’m at it, let’s transfer the whole scene to London at The National Theatre; I’ll catch a matinee followed by an early evening performance at The Donmar. And I’ll pay for Rose McGowan, Caitlin Stacey and Gang of Youths to join me. And you, Jamesy!

Is it better to live comfortably but be professionally uninspired or to live simply while following your passion?
Live simply and follow your passion. Straight up. I’m fuelled by instant coffee, rollies, art and beautiful human beings more so than I could ever be fuelled by material possessions. Bukowski once wrote, ‘find what you love and let it make you wonder how the fuck you’re going to make rent this week and hope to fuckery you’ve got enough money on your card to pay for this $3.30 coffee please say Approved, please sa- HAHA YES!’ Or something to that affect, I might be paraphrasing. (Just a call-out post to my privilege. As a cis-white-hetero the only way I could move through space with more privilege is if I had a dick. I live in heckin’ Marrickville; my version of ‘simple’ would be so many other’s ‘comfortable’)

Do you think we’re all better off being unaware that were living under tyranny or aware but ultimately powerless in resisting it?
Thank you for fielding this question to your resident Baby Socialist. Democracy is a necessary tyranny. It’s the most defective political structure except for all the other ones we’ve tried. If tyranny is understood as cruel and oppressive government, there are so many current political policies that are being enforced (let’s go for an obvious target: Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers) that I would describe as such. So. People are unaware of the “tyranny” we exist under because we dress it up with the title ‘Democracy’, and people are therefore powerless in resisting it because they are compliant, and therefore complicit in their own oppression. We’re completely free… within a closely monitored, tightly confined structure. Although, take me with a pinch of salt and also the entire Dead Sea here, because this is all come from someone who pays rent of time every month with the money she makes from selling women things they don’t need, and the mere thought of not Tapping On makes me skittish. Sorry, I’ve turned the volume on this casual Q&A up to Full Hektik, but I have a chronic case of NO CHILL also SEXUALITY IS A SPECTRUM, GENDER ISN’T BINARY, THE CAKE IS A LIE. xoxo.

What is your all-time dream role?
Gimme a crack at Romeo or Mercutio. I’m hungry for Donna from Shanley’s The Dreamer Examines His Pillow. Martha from Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf and Beatrice one day. But Donna soon, I hope.

James Wright

James Wright

Julia Christensen: In today’s competitive break-neck-pace capitalist society, can a man truly have it all?
I believe a man could achieve that perfect combination of a fulfilling career, decent income and work/life balance in today’s crazy world if they maybe free themselves from feeling the need to adhere to social expectations whether that be about gender roles or financial gain, if they can be driven and strive towards short term goals while also being open minded to the unplanned unpredictables, and if we all rise up and overthrow the fascist tyranny which both rules and abuses us at each step of our personal journeys.

When you reintroduced yourself to me at our second rehearsal because you forgot who I was and thought we hadn’t met, was that the first time that had happened to you or have you always been a self absorbed prick?
I have always been a self-absorbed, unobservant, forgetful prick who speaks first and thinks later.

If nothing of us is original and we are all just a swirling conglomerate of other people’s ideas and influences, how much of you is Toadie from Neighbours?
Ha well unfortunately for this moment only I have never watched Neighbours. I see myself as an awkward blend of Ace Ventura, Jesse Eisenberg and Withnail.

What would you get written on your tombstone?
Instead of a tombstone I just want a tree grown from seeds sprinkled onto my corpse… and because that’s what I want I’ll accept that someone will probably scratch WANKER on it once it’s grown.

Julia Christensen and James Wright can be seen in