Category Archives: Performers

Touring with Vivien Leigh’s black dog

LINDEMAN’S LEIGH Australian actress Susie Lindeman as Vivien Leigh in ‘Letter to Larry’.
LINDEMAN’S LEIGH Australian actress Susie Lindeman as Vivien Leigh in ‘Letter to Larry’.

A Writer’s review.

BRITISH actress Vivien Leigh (1913-1967) may have felt rather independent when she toured to Australia in 1961 with the Old Vic theatre company.

Divorce from Sir Laurence (‘Larry’) Olivier the year before had seen her separated from the theatrical powerhouse she was one half of – the international stage and screen duo known as ‘The Oliviers’.

Australian actress Susie Lindeman recently returned home with her production of Letter to Larry, a play by Donald Macdonald which captures Vivien Leigh in this pivotal moment of her life and career, and has already been acclaimed in London, Paris and Los Angeles.

“I was attracted by the role, and Donald Macdonald’s script,” Susie says. “We knew we had something special from the response to the first reading – here and in London”.

“We always wanted to present the show during Vivien Leigh’s centenary year. The early London performances were previews, and then we created a new version as the world premiere season for Paris in 2013.

“From that we received interest from New York. It was our intention to play in places significant to Vivien, so I also performed as part of the 100th celebrations in London and took it to Hollywood.”

One of those places of significance in the life of Vivien Leigh is Sydney’s Independent Theatre, a venue she played in the late 1940s and in 1961 (recreated in the bookends of Macdonald’s play), and the venue where Letter to Larry played on February 23, 2014.

“It’s the sole surviving Sydney theatre that Vivien herself knew. She and Laurence Olivier used to dodge the press and send a decoy somewhere so they could enjoy seeing shows at the Independent. This was when Olivier was also scouting Australia for talent – actors whom he felt could form Australia’s first national theatre.

TREADING THE BOARDS Actor Trader Faulkner with Susie Lindeman.
TREADING THE BOARDS Actor Trader Faulkner with Susie Lindeman.

“When Tyrone Guthrie, the legendary London director, came to scout also, he went to the Independent to see a show, and he discovered young Aussie actor, Trader Faulkner.

“Trader went on to work with John Gielgud and the Oliviers and many more, he was not only a co-star but also a friend to Vivien, and he will be with me sharing this performance.

“He is the show’s special guest and will stand again upon the stage of his 1947 triumph. He is a legend himself – he was a protégé of Peter Finch and wow, he has some great stories!”

Considering her acting career in mainstream theatre and film in Australia and Europe, I am keen to ask Susie how she approached the role of producer.

“I’m just an actress taking roles and opportunities when they present themselves,” she says. 

“As an Australian, social media has allowed me to retain my identity here as I work in other places. It’s all on a page, the whole world, we could be everywhere and anywhere.”

“However, when I think about it, I suppose that I also became an independent artist when I met Yasmina Reza, the great French writer, and through this personal and independent encounter, she entrusted me with the world rights for her play, Hammerklavier.

“Performing it internationally meant I performed independently; here, London, Edinburgh, Paris and even a performance in Singapore. Now, I guess I’m lucky enough to be asked to perform independently by several theatres themselves, rather than theatre companies as such.

“The decision was simply to be all I can be, to play Yasmina seemed a wonderful chance, and to make it happen I simply had to create it independently.”

What part does the social media play when independently producing a piece of theatre?

“It’s actually how I started using Facebook, I mean really using it, and for this show, we started to tweet,” Susie says. “But I think Letter To Larry having its own Facebook page is great to spread the word. Sometimes 600 people will like a status, which is wonderful, especially being such an indie creation”.

“As an Australian, social media has allowed me to retain my identity here as I work in other places. It’s all on a page, the whole world, we could be everywhere and anywhere.”

So where to from here for Letter to Larry?

“We want to have the Australian premiere season soon,” Susie says, “but I think because I’ve worked a lot in London and Paris, it seemed easier to get a theatre in those cities, so we do have the London premiere in the pipeline, a hoped-for season in New York, and a return to Hollywood”.

“But of course we’d love the chance to do an Australian season and tour, especially as the play opens and closes in the setting of Vivien’s 1961 Old Vic tour to Australia.”

I am interested in knowing how audiences respond to Susie’s interpretation of one of the world’s most beloved movie stars.

PLAYING PASSION Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Names Desire (1951).
PLAYING PASSION Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Names Desire (1951).

“I was absolutely astonished at the love Parisians have for Vivien. I mean, I knew that in London we would have an audience, but I was swept off my feet by the passion of the public, and the press, for this show,” she recalls. “Every night after the show there would be people waiting to tell me their thoughts and memories of Vivien, and they truly lit up when speaking of her. That’s why its such a pleasure to play her, she has a magic and spirit which is still tangible in the world.”

In the five decades since Vivien Leigh’s death, a result of chronic tuberculosis, public attitudes to mental health have changed enough that her now widely-known about manic depression, explored in Macdonald’s play, can emerge from the shadows. I ask Susie about this aspect of her interpretation of Leigh.

“Vivien was passionate and often cast in passionate roles, whether mad for her loss of Lord Nelson as Lady Hamilton, as Ophelia, or most searingly as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire,” Susie explains. “She never performed ‘madness’, she just felt so deeply the emotions and passion and loss”.

“Gielgud said: ‘The extremity of Vivien’s performance was extraordinary, and frightening. She elevated the text and the emotional intentions’ .

“It’s true that Vivien suffered with un-diagnosed bi-polar, and that her infinite energy and passion for life grew into manic phases,” Susie says. “In Letter to Larry I play Vivien from deep in her soul and heart, feelings magnified by her loss of Larry”.

“I believe there’s a fine line between insanity and inspiration. Vivien, as so many who knew her have told me, was such a free spirit, but also spiritual, so she was in touch with the source of sorrows as well. Someone said Vivien didn’t break down as much as stand up and fight back.”

INDEPENDENT ARTIST Actress, producer and director Susie Lindeman.
INDEPENDENT ARTIST Actress, producer and director Susie Lindeman.

And what does Susie think are the main challenges for performing artists working in Australia?

“I think funding, and the swiftly sinking press coverage, oh and sometimes the celebrity culture, which means sometimes actors who are so right for a part don’t even get a chance to read.

“I know theatre is a risky business, so theatres need to be careful,” Susie says, “but being careful has never been a way to create.”

With a nod to one of Vivien Leigh’s most memorable roles, Susie says: “Art isn’t intrinsically commercial anyway, and knowing that after a show, so often the audience will buy you a drink, so if you’re not paid properly, there’s always the kindness of strangers!”

For further information follow the show on Twitter @LetterToLarry or check out the Facebook Page.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Amanda Bishop – the UnReal Julia Gillard

REAL JULIA? Amanda Bishop performs The Habanera, as Australia's first female prime minister.
REAL JULIA? Amanda Bishop performs The Habanera, as Australia’s first female prime minister.

A Writer’s encounter with a political impersonator.

AS Julia Gillard made her way through parliamentary ranks before, during and after Kevin07, the political satirists of Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Revue recognised they’d need to find an actress to portray the woman who would become Australia’s first female prime minister.

From her knockout live performances, to her starring and co-writing roles in the controversial At Home With Julia on the ABC, actress Amanda Bishop has become synonymous with the role of Julia Gillard.

Bishop spoke with No Fibs this week about what it takes to succeed in satire, and the consequences of your subject being a politician, prone to the whims of voters and internal party tactics.

“Audiences would cheer at the first two spoken words!” Bishop said of her early stints as Julia Gillard for the 2008 Wharf Revue. “They seemed to both delight and cringe at the sound, and we knew we were onto something. They enjoyed her humour”.

“When I auditioned for the revue, Julia was the Deputy Leader of the Labor Party and Kevin Rudd had just won the election for Labor. The female in the revue plays many roles and the writer/directors (Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Philip Scott) had their eyes on the lady with the interesting voice, coming up through the ranks of the ALP.

“The Revue that year was called Waiting For Garnaut and Julia appeared as ‘Sister Gillard’ a novice of the abbey, in a musical scene called ‘The Sound Of Rudd’. She sang her version of ‘The Lonely Goatherd’, all on one note.”

Amanda Bishop as Julia Gillard.
Amanda Bishop as Julia Gillard.

So what was it like to impersonate a politician who’s in power?

“I love this question because it has never happened for a female in the European history of Australia,” Bishop says. “It was exhilarating to play a female who had to be listened to by, well, by the country, for three years, and her male colleagues. It was genuinely interesting because the real Julia endured so much criticism with grace”.

“In the Wharf Revue, both sides of politics are covered, so I still play her now, I’m lucky. It’s only when that ‘character’ leaves politics altogether that an actor needs to let go!”

What kind of loyalty does Bishop feel towards Julia Gillard when portraying her?

“I have great respect for her, and I probably feel warmer about her than if I hadn’t played her, but not because of what she did. Rather, I think I got to see just how thick-skinned she was to have continued serving while dealing with undesirable media attention, public criticism and being the first female in the position.

“Naturally, she confronted many sensibilities, whether we wish to admit it or not.

“Every time something happened that was all over the media, we’d put it in the show, such as the shoe coming off outside the Parliament House café when she was whisked away by the security guards. Such a small thing, publicised ridiculously.

“That was a gift in the end, we often highlighted the triviality that characterised her treatment and juxtaposed it with her seriously heavy hitting political mind and activities, and her sense of calm.

Has Bishop ever met her subject?

“Many journalists attempted to organise it, but apparently she was busy running the country or something. I certainly don’t demand attention on that front, and I’d love to meet her if the opportunity arose. In a strange way it feels like we’ve already met.”

Over its ten years, The Wharf Revue at the Sydney Theatre company has become a theatrical institution which has satirised four Prime Ministers and five cabinets (when we count KRudd twice). Amanda Bishop has been an integral part of that team for six years.

“I enjoy working with the Revue creators. I learn enormous amounts from them, as they’ve been doing it for longer than me. They are hilarious to work with too, a mix of the cerebral and the silly,” she says. “When I first get their scripts, I’m googling madly in my lunch breaks to understand the many, many, well-informed historical and current references, be they political, cultural or just downright funny.”

What preparation did Bishop undertake to nail such a pivotal role in her career?

“Lots of watching her in question time, I find it’s where we see our politicians at their most theatrical. I drew her, I also listened to her a great deal.

JULIA
Amanda Bishop as Julia Gillard.

“We can do an exact replica, or we can take elements of ‘impersonation’ and then build a character from there,” Bishop says, explaining the basic challenge of satire.

“The reason we build a character is because often we actors play a real person in situations they may not normally be in.

“For example, Julia sings Carmen’s ‘Habanera’ in this year’s revue, so we have to transition from a typical press conference situation, and, using the elements that are most strongly recognised (voice, hand gestures, stance, costume) take them into the world of make believe.”

Bishop’s work as Julia Gillard has also translated to the small screen in a number of incarnations.

“In television, I learnt a great deal from Paul McCarthy, who played Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, and Malcolm Turnbull in the series we did called Wednesday Night Fever recently on the ABC. He is an incredibly generous peer and his transformations are exquisite.”

Now that Julia Gillard has moved on from politics, what does Bishop think is in store for satirists?

“I actually think it’s another interesting time. We have Tony Abbott, who’s been in the public eye for some time now, but with him on his front bench, there’s much newer blood: Joe Hockey and Christopher Pyne, and in Labor, well, there’s been so many changes, they’re all new. There’s so much fun to be had, discovering the politicians through art as much as we discover them through their own work.

And what’s next for Amanda?

“I’m still performing Julia until Christmas. Then I’m going to New York to work, and so is Julia, apparently. Poor thing, I hope I don’t bump into her in a bad mood! I hope I get to thank her for the education she gave us.”

Thanks to Lisa Mann Creative Management and Sydney Theatre Company for their assistance in facilitating this interview and images.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Jonathan Rosten – spirited dancer

DANCER Jonathan Rosten rehearsing for Song and Dance (Photo: Branco Gaica).
LANGUAGE OF DANCE Jonathan Rosten rehearsing for Song and Dance (Photo: Branco Gaica).

Jonathan Rosten (1960-2004).

JONATHAN Rosten knew how to dance – it was the language he expressed himself best in. His dance career included some magnificent highlights – solo parts for The Australian Ballet Company, and roles in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song and Dance (Cameron Mackintosh) and An Evening (Sydney Dance Company).

Jono also made his mark in commercial dance, from variety television appearances, to iconic dance-based commercials, and his various spots in the opening of the NSW Royal Bicentennial Concert.

After 20 years as a dancer, Jono began a new career path when he found himself writing, directing and choreographing his first show – A Really Off Off Broadway Show. Jono’s program notes for this end-of-year student performance at Jester’s Acting School in 1986 describe himself as, “One who has been thrust into directing and is better equipped to handle toasted cheese sandwiches”.

Just why he made this move seemed to be a combination of things – too many hours spent bitching about the quality of productions on offer at the time; a desire to turn his burgeoning ideas into reality; and seeing a now renowned production of an entire musical in a garage in North Sydney, which inspired Jono with it’s ‘Let’s Just Do It’ approach to entertainment.

Once this door was open, Jono spent the next ten years in a showbiz no-man’s-land, taking dance work where it paid well in order to finance his writing. Moving from mainstream to independent theatre also saw him work with and be inspired by some early mavericks, including choreographer John O’Connell on Mr. Cha Cha Says Dance.

An early unproduced work he created was And Then God Created Showbiz!, beginning a tradition of exclamation marks in his show titles. This was a comic exploration of the history of showbiz in a biblical and new age context. Ideas for numbers included The Ten Commandments in the style of The Ziegfeld Follies; a Fonteyn and Nureyev duet with a wheelchair-bound Fonteyn; and a climactic Xanadu-inspired number with Jesus on roller-skates.

Suffice to say the humour was subversive. The vaudevillian line-up of showgirls, drag-queens, biblical characters and historical showbiz luminaries would have made this show highly expensive and a copyright nightmare.

For Jono, it was a fantastic experiment he worked on for a decade, a place where all that seemed ‘unacceptable’ in his world (homosexuality, cross-dressing and new age spirituality) could be placed centre-stage. These were recurring themes in all his work, taken from his own life journey and stories he’d encountered along the way.

It took another ten years before Jono found someone out there like him. At the end of a trip across America, in which he took-in the heights of Broadway, Jono happened upon a small theatre company in Los Angeles holding a retrospective of the collected works of Justin Tanner, a self-made theatre man who created shows like Zombies Attack and Pot Mom. He went to see a new work every night of his stay in LA, and the impression it left on him lasted for the rest of his life.

SHOWSTRUCK

He knew he had no time to waste. He knew he could be to Australia what Tanner was for Tinseltown, and shelved a host of stymied and incomplete works, including And Then God Created Showbiz! to embark on an entirely new piece called Show Struck!

Produced in the Northern Rivers area by Jono’s fledging theatre company Creative in Company, this new show was popular with audiences and was well-reviewed.

Jono created a show where the vaudevillian and alternative concepts were well within the context of a strong plot – one man’s journey through contemporary Australian show business, his desire to integrate spiritually in a spiritual vacuum, and to express his sexuality as a gay man. He wrote the show’s lyrics and produced, directed, choreographed and also acted in the show when one of the cast was injured.

Tired of endless touring to regional RSL’s, Daniel, the hero of Show Struck! is in creative limbo with his friend, mentor and bete-noire, Sherri, a showbiz survivor who has nurtured Daniel creatively and spiritually but will not let him flourish in the face of her own failures.

His journey takes him from also feeling like a failure in life, career and love to a state of limitless potential, having exorcised his demons – Sherri, his agent, and creative and sexual guilt within himself. Comically and beautifully, this journey is made in the form of an original show within a show.

One of Jono’s favourite real-life showbiz characters was Ed Wood of Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda fame. In the same spirit of this Hollywood maverick, Jono had big dreams to realise.

LOST SOULS The Lost Brother, Bondi Ballet, 2002.
LOST SOULS The Lost Brother, choreographed by Jonathan Rosten for Bondi Ballet, 2002.

He left Byron Bay for the Blue Mountains in 1999 and found himself in a new creative community where he quickly made his presence felt.

He began working with other maverick producers, like Out of the Blue, a community theatre group who through sheer hard work and self-belief staged the electrifying Australian Premiere of The Who’s Rock Opera Tommy at Parramatta Riverside Theatres in 2003, choreographed by Jono. Bondi Ballet gave Jono the chance to write and choreograph Lost Brother in 2002, a highly personal dance-multimedia work about the drowning death of his older brother Peter.

His dream now was to live close to the city and take original shows into Sydney after out-of-town tryouts in Katoomba. The Clarendon Dinner Theatre was the perfect venue for this plan, having birthed many successful productions over the years, and Jono approached the venue with a new show She Males from Outer Space!

Like all Jono’s shows She Males was purposely derivative. He dubbed it ‘Scooby Doo meets Plan Nine from Outer Space’. A gang of kids lost in the Australian bush encounter two strangely attired women who look like they’re from a science fiction movie, but claim to be collecting minerals at midnight. Before the kids know it they’re trapped in an intergalactic breeding program when one of them – Anne, a devout Brethren girl – is kidnapped. The gang must get her back and face their own shortcomings and lack-of-acceptance in the process.

SHE MALES

This show made it to Sydney in February 2004 as part of the Mardi Gras Cultural Festival, and had a 4-week season at The Edge Theatre in Newtown.

Jono injected this classic story of opposites with some of his best choreography. There were cheerleading sequences, mesmerising alien dance-moves and a continual comic through-line involving movement and lines inspired by old movies and television.

Deep in the plot was another of Jono’s appeals for acceptance when the hermaphrodite alien she-males explain to the younger gang that they are “Perfectly balanced in our male and female parts”, a beautiful piece of writing which challenges the gang (and us) to accept themselves, each other, and ultimately Anne’s alien she-male baby who was born during the curtain call.

Jono had succeeded in a long-held ambition to carry a weighty political message with a light comic touch, and reviewers and audiences responded. He had also discovered where his greatest talent lay – in storytelling using movement, dance and comic juxtaposition.

The Clarendon immediately asked for another show and Jono responded with his last unproduced show Double Identity (strangely there was no exclamation mark in this one). This show was again highly derivative, taking the film noir world and turning it on its head.

Inspired by audience reactions to the comic dance and movement styles in She Males, Jono created a series of dance/movement numbers and then built a plot around these. He also planned to return to the stage in a number of small crazy parts, including Frank the club owner who cross-dresses.

To date this show has had one performance only, two days before Jono died suddenly in rehearsal. Harking back to the garage-show in the 1980s, this performance was in the studio at the back of our home. I was the only member of the audience and the young leads – Nathan Roberts and Ines Vas De Sousa, were obviously going to be fantastic in the run. Jono was in there too – I had rarely seen him perform, and he sparkled with a glint in his eye, even when things went wrong and they had to do numbers from the top.

The man who started out as Buckingham in The Australian Ballet’s Three Musketeers, who danced for the Prince and Princess of Wales at Australia’s Bicentenary, who was The Milka Boy in the Swiss Alps with purple cows, was now integrating again in his newest incarnation as a singer-dancer-actor-writer-choreographer-director-producer.

Little did he or we know that the integration was so complete that only 48 hours later he would make the ultimate transition into death.

POSTER_email

Double Identity did not have its 3-month season at The Clarendon.

I can imagine Jono changing the name of this production to The Show Must Not Go On! (and scoring an exclamation!) because showbiz seems all too superficial without him.

Reality of his absence has kicked-in and Creative in Company has dissipated with the understandable shock.

The irony is that while his company was called ‘Creative in Company’ it really was just Jono instigating the work and driving it forwards, like Daniel in Show Struck!, helped and supported by a lot of talented people, but it was always Jono driving the bus.

“Don’t worry about being famous,” was one of the last things he ever said to me, in a way which told me he had once cared about fame, but had certainly let go of it and become much happier as a result.

I knew then why I loved him so much, and will never forget my years in the presence of this cheeky showbiz original who achieved his life’s ambition to understand himself, well out of the spotlight.

For this I am sure he would be happy to be remembered in the AussieTheatre.com Hall of Fame.

Published by AussieTheatre.com in 2004.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.