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

Review: Undertaking (Sydney Fringe Festival)

Venue: HPG Festival Hub (Erskineville NSW), Sep 6 – 30, 2017
Playwrights: Duncan Maurice, Sharon Zeeman
Director: Duncan Maurice
Cast: Rizcel Gagawanan, Jasper Garner Gore, Moreblessing Maturure, Benjamin Wang, Sharon Zeeman

Theatre review
In a very large disused office, an audience gathers to solve the mystery of 11 murders. There are clues littered everywhere, and we roam around using mobile phones as torches, with suspicious characters in our midst who may or may not be part of the show that we have come to see. Over the course of an hour, drama unfolds, with the cast revealing itself, in their highly unorthodox presentation of a contrastingly conventional serial killer story.

Duncan Maurice and Sharon Zeeman’s Undertaking works with the enveloping of space around bodies, which is the essential nature of the theatrical art form. Strangers congregate, awaiting time and space to transform in the hands of collaborating artists, who have constructed a plan, to orchestrate a process of communication above the mundane. In Maurice and Zeeman’s vision, passivity is the ruin of both art and life. To be a participant of their staging, our spectatorship extends beyond the mind. A kinetic response is required of us, but how much we are willing to give, always remains a personal choice.

The journey fluctuates between moments of bustling activity, and creepy stillness. Some of us are compelled to make things happen, while others are content to wait for the next bout of drama. The wandering group consists of personalities who engage ardently in the investigative process, as well as those who observe quietly; we choose our own adventure. The show is most effective when actors are in close proximity, but the space is large and we are too often left to our own devices. Musical director David Herrero creates an omnipresent soundscape that assists in keeping us involved, especially potent when tensions escalate in the closing minutes. Actor Benjamin Wang is memorable for his terrifying depiction of a man on the brink of death.

Undertaking is a spirited work that takes seriously, its artistic responsibility to inspire its viewer. It is democratic and political, and even if the immediate narrative in the “whodunnit” genre can seem perfunctory, the experience is unforgettable. Whenever the making of art falls into repetitive predictability, we must call for a new challenge. Immersive theatre is just the way to tackle the tedious obedience, that has today become so pervasive.

www.mongrelmouth.com

Review: What I’ll Never Say (Sydney Fringe Festival)

Venue: Erskineville Town Hall (Erskineville NSW), Sep 6 – 9, 2017
Playwright: Stuart Englund
Director: Dan Graham
Cast: Stuart Englund

Theatre review
We often think of politicians as liars. We wish for them to be persons of extraordinary integrity, but believe them to be quite the opposite. Stuart Englund’s What I’ll Never Say is a monologue featuring a Member of Parliament talking, unsurprisingly, about himself. The piece is not particularly revelatory, containing nothing controversial, but its depiction of a man trying to shed a persona, in order that we may get to a sense of truth, is refreshing. Plot and pace are calibrated well for the piece, and we find ourselves able to remain attentive even when the anecdotes lose lustre.

Performed by Englund himself, who is not an actor by any stretch of the imagination, we struggle to glean every detail of the narrative. His presence is relentlessly droll, but a sincerity allows broad strokes to be painted, that give us adequate information and impressions of the personality being portrayed. Englund reads the entire show from sheets of paper on a rostrum, so even though we hear every word clearly, meanings are not always communicated with palpability. If a piece is written for the stage, an appropriate skill set is required to have it come to life, and on this occasion, the right person has not been elected for the job.

The things we read on the news are often stranger than fiction. Our political figures are larger than life, and the tales spun around these personalities can seem nothing short of fantastical. What I’ll Never Say is restrained, almost subdued by comparison, but it feels truthful in what it has to say about our leaders. It is in our culture as Australians to be anti-authority, and in its efforts to humanise the protagonist, we are encouraged to see the ordinariness of those who hold office. It is the intention of the work that individuals will be inspired to embrace politics, and have an increased awareness of insidious power structures that surround us. There can never be enough good people working in the public service, if only to undo the damage caused by the unscrupulous.

www.facebook.com/WhatIllNeverSay

Review: DNA (Last One Standing Theatre Company)

Venue: Erskineville Town Hall (Erskineville NSW), Sep 5 – 9, 2017
Playwright: Dennis Kelly
Director: Jeremy Lindsay Taylor
Cast: Holly Fraser, James Fraser, Alfie Gledhill, Jesse Hyde, Jess-Belle Keogh, Alex Malone, Josh McElroy, Bardiya McKinnon, Xanthe Paige, Millie Samuels, Emm Wiseman

Theatre review
It is a terrible existence that the teenagers in DNA endure, but none are truly aware of the repugnance that is thrust upon them. Injustice and suffering is completely normalised. Life simply is often unbearable; they see it all around, people finding ways to put up with a world that is never good enough. Dennis Kelly’s play talks about the cycle of poverty and disadvantage, and an idea akin to fate that makes people settle for very little, in places like England where much has been taken from the lower classes.

One of the group has died in an accident, and the rest scurry and scheme to evade blame. They make no effort to retrieve the body, and are certainly unwilling to provide authorities with any assistance. Kelly puts on show a sickening reality, that when viewed from a position of our bourgeois objectivity, is painfully reprehensible. It confronts aggressively, our sense of social responsibility as developed nations who should know better, but who are culpable in the woeful damage caused by the persistent continuance of inequities, reinforced by the ever-increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The production appeals strongly to our capacity for curiosity. Director Jeremy Lindsay Taylor keeps us questioning the motives and behaviour of his characters, by enacting an inner logic for DNA that always feels alien, in spite of its dramatic cogency. We understand the story, but we cannot believe how things have got to this point. It is a marvellous cast of eleven young stars who draw us in, with excellent conviction and discipline, having us convinced of the bizarre cruelty that occurs in our midst. Their work is revelatory, powerful in their unflinching dedication to the text’s inherent darkness.

It is not an entirely pessimistic exercise. We witness an urge to break these patterns of despondency in Leah (poignantly performed by Millie Samuels), who resists conventions of ignorance and resignation. While others continue with narratives of captivity, her impulse is to escape. It may be the only sensible thing to do, but it is also the exception, and a serious conundrum that requires our rumination.

www.lastonestandingtheatreco.com

5 Questions with Rizcel Gagawanan and Jasper Garner Gore

Rizcel Gagawanan

Jasper Garner Gore: Describe Undertaking in five words.
Rizcel Gagawanan: Mysterious. Unexpected. Exciting. Unpredictable. Enlightening.

Who should see this show and why?
First of all, people who love thrillers, scary movies etc. People who are looking to have a good time and take a risk. People who are okay with putting themselves in a situation where they don’t know what’s going to happen. And anyone who loves theatre! You go to watch shows to experience something different and new and this show will definitely be a theatre experience you’ve never had before. Immersive theatre is quite a unique form, there’s not many happening in Sydney so this could be people’s chance to see it for the first time.

What has been the most challenging part of rehearsing this show?
Our rehearsal process hasn’t been the typical rehearsal process that I’m used to, like you get your script, you memorise your lines, you work out your blocking etc. There’s a script and a plot but a lot of the scene stuff we’ve put together through improv and collaboration which is a first for me but it’s been super fun. But I would say the most challenging has been trying to rehearse with an audience that’s not there yet. We won’t know how it’s going to go and what’s going to happen until we get our audience on previews, opening night and every night the show is on. To prepare, you can come up with all the possibilities but there’s always going to be something that the audience will give that you didn’t think of, so that’s scary but also exciting at the same time.

What is the scariest place you have performed in?
This place. I have always performed on a stage with a spotlight and cues and wings. This is immersive theatre, so there’s no wings to hide in or take a break here! There’s no backstage or green room. You are on “stage” the whole time. Also when I first came to this space I was already freaked out even in daylight. The space has a weird feel to it. It’s even worse when all the lights are out.

Are you afraid of the dark?
Yes.

Jasper Garner Gore

Rizcel Gagawanan: Since we can’t give too much away about this show, describe Undertaking in 5 words.
Jasper Garner Gore: A Big Scary Space, Murders.

Because the show is “immersive theatre”, how do you feel about not performing on a stage but performing with the audience?
I’ve done a little bit of this sort of this stuff before, nothing quite as involved. I think it makes rehearsing interesting because you do have to guess a bit, it’s like rehearsing a dance without the other person you’re gonna be dancing with. But it’s also really really exciting because I think like there is an appetite for this kind of work and for work that activates environments and audiences this way. And you feel kind of like you’re in the vanguard of something which is fun.

What’s the funniest, weirdest or most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you on stage?
One time I was doing a production of Amadeus and I had taken my costume stockings home to wash and I left them there. And I realised shortly before I was getting dressed to go on that I didn’t have any stockings. So I had to turn to the girl playing Constanze, who’s a friend, and be like, “please give me your stockings”, not her show stockings but her actual human stockings and they didn’t quite go all the way up, they covered just above my knee. So the whole show the pantaloons I was wearing were very breezy. During the whole thing I was worried, y’know, hoping no one would look up my pants, ‘cause they would just see bare thigh. That probably wasn’t the worst but it was pretty bad.

What’s great about rehearsing and performing in the space in The Enclosure at the HPG Festival Hub?
Nutting it out. We’re solving a novel space, which is super fun, finding out where you can play, where you can be seen, where you can be heard. It’s new, it’s exciting and it’s weird. It’s a weird place with all sorts of strange possibilities.

Jasper, as the king of puns, can you make a pun or a funny dad joke about Undertaking?
Undertaking? Ha, the morgue the merrier!

Rizcel Gagawanan and Jasper Garner Gore are appearing in Undertaking, part of the Sydney Fringe Festival 2017.
Dates: 6 – 30 September, 2017
Venue: Sydney Fringe HPG Festival Hub

Review: Idiot Juice (Jackrabbit Theatre)

Venue: The Factory Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Aug 29 – Sep 2, 2017
Playwright: Charlie Falkner
Cast: Charlie Falkner, Alex Malone, James Sweeny
Image by Luke McMahon

Theatre review
Charlie Falkner’s creation provides a simple structure for Idiot Juice, with three siblings hawking “medium juice” at a funeral, claiming that it provides visions of the dead for an hour, with each dose consumed. Within this context, performers improvise jokes in accordance with its predetermined plot trajectory. With death positioned at the centre of the action, we find ourselves on fertile ground for dark comedy, and opportunities are certainly present for poignant existential reflection, but the trio keeps things resolutely light.

Each comedian brings to the stage a distinct style of humour, with James Sweeny’s brassy approach proving invaluable in holding our attention captive. Alex Malone’s whimsy prevents the show from turning predictable, and Falkner’s self-effacing impulses are key to his charm. It is a cohesive group, and when the chemistry works, their show vibrates with a sense of unmistakable excitement, but an inability to maintain a consistently tight rhythm at several points, exposes unfortunate deficiencies in dexterity and confidence.

To be able to laugh at death, requires that we interrogate and excavate the deepest of our humanity. It forces us to examine how we apportion value, to identify the things that matter in life, or more accurately, to question those that reveal only frivolity. Idiot Juice is about gullibility, and how we are easily fooled into adopting ideals that are nothing more than myth or romance. As the saying goes, only death and taxes are certain in life, so everything else must only be a manifestation of the subjective imagination, and what we become, has a lot to do with choices.

www.jackrabbittheatre.com