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: 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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