Category Archives: Stage

Being Gus

DUMB WAITER
WAITING … WAITING Michael Burge and Andrew Broderick in The Acting Factory’s production of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter.

I WAS already having a bad year when my partner, Jono, died suddenly a fortnight prior to the opening of a show we were co-producing.

I’d managed to get myself sacked from my job performing a cross-dressed version of King Lear a few weeks earlier, but that’s another story …

In the midst of long, grief-stricken nights at home alone, and the increasingly difficult task of sorting through Jono’s estate while discovering that his mother and brother were denying the existence of our relationship, I got an email out of the blue from Sherreen Hennessy, a director I’d worked with before.

Thankfully devoid of overblown sympathy, except to say she’d heard the news about Jono, and, like most people, couldn’t believe it was true, Sherreen was contacting me with an offer to appear in a production of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter for fledging theatre company The Acting Factory, at the Q Theatre.

It was a courageous request, considering the timing.

So I purchased a copy of Pinter’s one act masterpiece the day I collected Jono’s ashes from the funeral director.

I instantly fell in love with the role of Gus, one of a pair of hit men holed-up in some random basement.

We had our first read-through during my move back to the Blue Mountains, where I’d accepted good friends’ invitation to board for a while in their enormous house on the bush.

I attacked the read with a broad accent based on Monty Python’s Eric Idle – it seemed to fit with the text – and we (me, Sherreen and Andrew Broderick, playing Ben) agreed we’d stick to the original time period and location of the play, despite the other half to our whole – a production of Pinter’s The Lover (starring Lynne McGranger, Bill Conn, and directed by Fiona Press) – planning to locate in contemporary Australia.

My Mountains stay hit a devastating hiccup when I moved out of my friend’s place after only two nights. My shocking year changed up a gear with the realisation that I’d made one of the worst judgements of character in my life – saying yes to a constantly open door, only to find it slamming in my face, even as I reached the threshold. But that’s another story …

This set a pattern into motion, where I just began to live Gus’s life. Mine had quickly become inhabited by crooks and fakes, intent on denying the detail of my human rights, from my ownership of almost every item Jono and I shared, to my place as his spouse on his death certificate.

Being Gus was just easier than being me across that winter.

There are a thousand ways to play a Pinter character – the writer leaves so much to interpretation, while supporting the actor with strong speech rhythms (including the famous ‘Pinteresque’ pauses), which, once learnt, allowed me to explore to whatever depth I wanted.

Hiding as I was by then in a truer friend’s granny flat, I had Gus as a companion while the world got very, very surreal beyond the high fences.

He was a wonderful distraction: pedantic, freaked-out, faster at expressing his terror than the more powerful Ben. I could have left things at that, but I had the time and the need to go a lot deeper, and created for my Gus some wonderful messy qualities, and some fun contradictions.

The Dumb Waiter opens with stage directions telling us that Gus is unable to tie his shoelaces, but Pinter makes no suggestion when it comes time for him to don his tie. A man who cannot tie his laces is unlikely to be able to work a necktie, so who does it then, Ben? Perhaps, but my Gus could do it, in his own way, given enough time, which of course waiting hit men have plenty of.

GET IT? Michael Burge and Andrew Broderick in The Dumb Waiter.
WHILE YOU’RE WAITING Michael Burge and Andrew Broderick in The Dumb Waiter.

By the time we moved into the theatre the backstage half-light worked its magic.

I am a naturally tidy person, so, as Gus, I became a clean-freak’s nightmare. Every night before the house was open I’d play in Gus’s space and leave lolly wrappers, and other scraps, and I’d mess up his bed.

Andrew responded beautifully by making Ben fastidious. We never spoke about it, but whenever I’d come near Ben’s bed I’d be pulling at his blanket, strewing my stuff all over it and messing it up. Ben, meanwhile, would be straightening and trying to keep Gus at bay.

In the simplest way we found the actors’ game that is behind every scene in every play ever written for the stage.

What clinched my performance was swapping the plastic prop guns for the real thing, under a weapons wrangler’s instruction. I can still recall my first whiff of Gus’s gun. It reminded me of childhood fears around farm rifles, a primal, dirty, dangerous scent.

I put a question to the weapons guy: how would a lazy person ‘cock’ his weapon? He answered by just flicking the pistol hard to the right, clicking the barrel into place, like they did in the wild west.

In that moment I found the one thing Gus could do well and without fuss. Somewhere in there was the little boy who’d become the hit man. I was ready.

NICE ACT Lynne McGranger led the cast of The Acting Factory's Pinter double bill.
NICE ACT Lynne McGranger led the cast of The Acting Factory’s Pinter double bill.

On opening night, Lynne came into our dressing room and remarked on Jono’s photo sitting at my mirror. Bill and Andrew joined-in her brief, generous acknowledgement that my mainstay was missing on this night of nights. Jono’s rehearsal room death had by then become something whispered about amongst the showbusiness crowd.

Bill and Lynne worked the crucial live sound effects for Andrew and me, as we opened each night. Andrew and I were stage hands for Bill and Lynne when they followed, and Andrew went on as the Milkman in The Lover.

It was a supportive, well-received run and we got great notices for a tiny theatre company on the edge of the city.

Handling a gun nightly gave me a sense of power, when I was rendered powerless in the real world; speaking while people listened gave me a sense of being heard, while I was silenced in the real world; and being a single hit man on the job gave me a sense of freedom, when my whole world had collapsed.

I will possibly never be more ably equipped as an actor.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved

On the Board at Fox Studios

Hi res Fox Colour_0How a Writer’s op-shop jacket got him cast in a commercial.

Towards the end of my acting training my class appeared in The Legend of King O’Malley by Bob Ellis and Michael Boddy. In preparation for the title role, I scoured the local op-shops for weeks in search of my costume.

Having been an inveterate op-shopper for years, I knew the chances of finding anything my size were slim, so when I discovered a light green plaid jacket, the sleeves of which covered my long arms right to my knuckles, I rushed to pay the hefty $5.

But hey, I had an outfit that didn’t pinch me in the shoulders or make me look like Frankenstein, wrists exposed from cuffs halfway up my forearms. I felt able to play the man (“The King”) who had such an impact on the formation of modern Australia.

About a fortnight after the show, I was rehearsing for a production of The Popular Mechanicals by Keith Robinson, Tony Taylor and William Shakespeare, at Penrith’s Q-Theatre, when I got a call from the only agent I’ve ever had (who recruited models and actors through letterbox drops), asking me to attend a casting session for a car commercial at Fox Studios in Sydney. “Dress corporate,” she said.

My only smart jacket was King O’Malley’s. Matched with a business shirt (I had to fork out another $2), I looked about as corporate I was ever going to get, and plonked myself down in the casting office waiting room, surrounded by people in black and grey.

We were seen in groups, seated in a mock boardroom complete with a whiteboard, and launched into a board meeting improvisation. I was asked to stand and play the boss, whiteboard marker in hand.

BOARDROOM BITCH Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.
BOARDROOM BITCH Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.

Having spent months in theatre training, I was used to playing to the car park, so I was drawn to channel Faye Dunaway playing Joan Crawford in the Pepsi Cola scene in Mommie Dearest, (“Don’t f#%k with me fellas!”), and launched into sacking the whole lot of my motley staffers.

A note from the big wigs in the shadows, behind the camera, asked me to “Do it again, but tone it down.”

So I changed gears, made it quieter, colder, figuring they might be framing my head and shoulders. My fellow actors looked back at me with fear. Before I knew whether they were acting or not, we were shuffled out.

At the callback we had to imagine, on cue, a wonderful new car driving past our meeting, which was so innovative and attractive that it stopped us, and all our corporate musings, in shock. The result was several rounds of dreadful face pulling, and a bit of inappropriate chuckling.

But I got the gig!

Marched before the director at the costume fitting, “The Board” all looked at me when he asked “Where’s your green jacket?”.

“At home,” I muttered, feeling like I’d worn the wrong gear to sports class. “Can you bring it to the shoot? Can he bring it to the shoot?” he asked, not allowing me to say anything to the first part of his question. The costume designer looked at me with daggers in her eyes, nodded, and marched us out.

There was me thinking it was my well-honed acting skills which got me the job!

On the day, “The Board” waited in a bland green room at Fox Studios, where we worked out very quickly that only one of us could be defined as a “proper” actor – the NIDA graduate cast in the role of “The Boss”. The rest of us were ring-ins, really – a film festival producer, an accountant, an ad sales-rep – all earning far more in one day than we’d ever get in our day jobs.

If we made the final cut, that is. Word got around the set that the director was speculating on too many scenes for his Asian-screened commercial, and if we got cut we might get nothing.

No-one said it, but everyone on “The Board” thought “Don’t f#%k this up, people”.

We were fetched by a man with five mobile phones on his belt, seated in front of a blue screen with a small black track across it, given two quick rehearsals to aid in focussing on the fluorescent taped mark as it sped by (indicating where the “car” would be keyed-in by the editors) and then we were on.

I was seated with my back to the “car”. After the first take, they asked us to take our cue from the NIDA graduate, who was to take his from the director. We were all to be amazed by the “car” at different moments.

After a few more takes, a message came through to the NIDA graduate that he needed to do his turn, his “discovery” of the “car”, “less Broadway, please”. Everyone chuckled, because he had, actually, been having far too much fun with it.

A few more takes later, I shoved some papers off the table, on purpose. “Upstager!” I imagined the NIDA graduate say under his breath. But they liked it, “Keep the papers falling, please.”

A few takes later, they asked for me to take my green jacket off and put in behind me on the chair and roll up my shirt sleeves. No problem, it was getting warm anyway.

Then things started to go a little awry. The NIDA graduate was turning early, which put us all off. The message came through to “Stick to the cue, please”.

Bemused, sweat trickling down his temples, the NIDA graduate looked as though he really was earning his extra dollars for being slightly more featured in this commercial than us ring-ins. While they reset the marker, he leant across to me and whispered: “What’s my cue again?”

“When the director says ‘action’,” I whispered, as reassuringly as I could.

A few more takes later and it was all over. “The Board” was marched off the set to loud applause from the clients, clustered around a mock living room at the edge of the sound stage.

THE BORED MEMBERS Corporate grey is good, but green is better.
BORED MEMBERS Corporate grey is good, but green is better.

“When do you think we’ll get paid?” one of “The Board” asked back in the green room. “Don’t be so cynical,” the guy with five mobile phones said, calling-in the two models cast in the scene where the secretary gets ravished on the photocopier by some random office guy, after seeing the “car”, or course.

We cynical non-actors laughed, exchanged business cards, raided the fabulous leftover catering, and departed.

I drove back to Penrith for the technical rehearsal of The Popular Mechanicals, which was to open in only a few days. After all the blood, sweat and tears that goes into putting anything onto the stage, we played to some houses comprising fewer people, showing less enthusiasm, than the ad execs after “The Board’s” gripping performance at Fox Studios.

And we got paid nix. Welcome to Showbusiness, Mike.

I kept the green jacket for a few more years, but ditched in a hurried move, and I have never acted since I gave it up. Maybe it was my Good Luck Jacket?

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Gambling on Madame Melville

MAGIC MADAME Stephen James King and Susie Lindeman in the Australian premiere of Madame Melville.
MAGIC MADAME Stephen James King and Susie Lindeman in the Australian premiere of Madame Melville.

A Writer learns the cost of casting.

HAVING started out in the Australian theatre scene as a designer, and reinvented myself in England as just about everything else – director, writer, producer – I eventually re-trained as an actor on Sydney’s fringe, made a splash in a couple of college shows, and then spent a year totally unemployed in that field apart from a stint in a car commercial. Probably an average result, in hindsight.

My big question was always this: how did actors without agents even hear about roles that were going, let alone get cast in one?

When an independent theatre company was producing the Australian premiere of Richard Nelson’s beautiful play Madame Melville at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney, I found some answers.

A friend in the cast loaned me a copy of the script. Nelson’s sentimental study of his sexual awakening at the hands of a Parisian teacher in the 1960s is so evocatively written I could envisage it on the stage after just one read. There was also a part in the play I thought I had half a chance of getting cast in.

It’s impossible to explain this role without providing the worst spoilers for anyone who has not seen a production of Madame Melville. Suffice to say the character is the very rarest of roles in the modern theatre – a short, devastating attack on the protagonist, bringing the play to a swift, bittersweet conclusion.

So I pushed, a little, and put myself forward.

The offer of an audition hung in the air while the production company deliberated over theatre dates. Eventually, my friend called and said the show probably wouldn’t go ahead – there was a hole in the budget, and the highly experienced director would not work for free.

Disappointed, and experienced in putting budgets together, I asked, “How big is the hole?” I was in an excellent position to ask – I’d just sold my house, and was about to buy again in a cheaper market. I could afford to invest in my career a little.

My friend cried on the phone when I said I’d be happy to put up the money, which was nothing, really, just a fair fee for the director.

As a firm believer that everyone should get something from a professional collaboration, I understood his bottom line. I also understood mine – all I wanted in return was to remain an anonymous donor, and an audition for the role.

In due course, I got the call. The slightly scary part was having to front-up at NIDA, which was always imposing for this graduate. I’d left without really saying goodbye, my mind focussed on desperate family matters at home.

I’d been back for the place’s 40th birthday, and stood in a crowd watching a video clip on a huge screen celebrating student work across those four decades, and been part of the admiring-yet-envious silence, when Cate Blanchett’s picture flashed-up on the screen.

Because, like it or not, we who were watching comprised the 99 percent that NIDA’s dream factory told us would be unemployed for 99 percent of the time.

The director greeted me generously – we’d been NIDA students about the same time – and he took me upstairs to one of the familiar rehearsal rooms, explaining he was on a break from the annual NIDA applicant actors’ auditions.

That made me even more nervous – he’d been auditioned-for by even younger, hungrier, more hopeful actors than me all morning!

My first piece was a disaster. The other seemed to take him by surprise, and got a genuine laugh. He said that if he’d seen me do that in the morning, he’d have asked me back for the afternoon.

I took my leave and walked back past the young people posturing around the lunch room waiting for their afternoon call-back. I’d’ve been ‘asked back’ too, I muttered to them in my imagination.

MADAME MELVILLE 2

Weeks later, I heard that Madame Melville was going ahead. We’d secured a slightly awkward slot, right off the back of New Years, which was only weeks away, meaning the production would open to little advance publicity.

But I decided to enjoy not having to worry about such matters, and just act.

The professional cast was welcoming and generous, and I embraced the chance to inhabit the half-light of theatre wings once again. Nelson’s script calls for offstage voices throughout, and I had fun with those, whiling-away the hour or so before my entrance.

A one-line role over an extended season was a bit like a marathon of self-amusement. I created my character’s back story, went through serious preparations while listening the others onstage over the tannoy, gossiped with the cast of the upstairs Belvoir show, and duly took my cue.

Entering through the audience, I regularly heard their gasps of surprise and shock as I did battle with the protagonist … it was a joy to be part of such dramatic impact.

My technique of getting an audition got me nowhere beyond this production, the curtain call sometimes seemed longer than my time on the stage, but we got good audiences and well reviewed as a creative team, and a modest profit-share cheque eventually arrived in the post.

Odds aside, it was life-enlarging to be back in the theatre as part of the one per cent for a Summer.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.