Tag Archives: Sydney Theatre Company

Carbon Cate’s direct action on the cultural cringe

HEDDING OVERSEAS Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett in STC's Hedda Gabler.
HEDDING OVERSEAS Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett in STC’s Hedda Gabler.

WITH a second Academy Award under her belt, Australian-born actress Cate Blanchett joined an international cultural elite, and it was fascinating to watch the response of the Australian media to her accolade.

This was particularly true of News Corporation, which dubbed her ‘Carbon Cate’ when she joined a 2011 advertising campaign encouraging Australians to understand the benefits of the Labor government’s Carbon Tax.

But by the day of the Oscar ceremony, The Daily Telegraph had reverted to calling Blanchett “Our Cate”.

Within minutes of her award, tall poppy syndrome had kicked-in, and News Corp’s news.com.au was questioning Blanchett’s contributions to the Australian film industry over the past decade.

The day after her historic win, which marked the first time an Australian actor won two Oscars, they buried Carbon Cate in the entertainment news, which is probably where they believe she belongs.

“It seems the cultural cringe is still alive and well in Australia.”

In case we need a reminder, ‘cultural cringe’ is the tendency of a colony to question the relevance of its artists against its ‘motherland’. It’s a kind of inferiority complex, if you like.

But this anti-intellectual process doesn’t only apply to the Arts.

When Barnaby Joyce leapt onto the ‘Carbon Cate’ bandwagon, he was taking a dig at someone he accused of being out of touch with economic realities.

He also had an agenda, which was not just anti-Cate, it was anti-science, and he probably knew very well that coining an alliterative derogatory term for his target would be highly effective.

So, it’s time for a reminder on the facts about Blanchett’s commitment to Australian industries and solutions to climate change.

Cate Blanchett is a local, who has lived with her family in the Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill for almost a decade.

In 2013 she ended a six-year stint as to co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), work she admits put a dent in the time she could commit to an international film career, yet led to a golden era in Australian theatre exports.

Yes, that’s correct: Australian theatre, exported.

Despite the level of Australian Government funding for National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) students, the local film, television and theatre industries they graduate into would not stand comparison with the reach and profitability of any other similarly funded Australian industry.

Australian theatre particularly does not even register against our worst-faring industries, such as agriculture and manufacturing. A decade ago, NIDA graduate and Australian actor Jeremy Sims quite rightly described our theatre industry as a “cottage industry”.

Before Cate Blanchett played the title role in Hedda Gabler for STC in 2004, Australian international theatre tours were few and far between. But in 2006, STC took the production to New York, where it played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to a limited but sold-out season. It was not quite a Broadway experience for the company, but the touring cast and key creative crew were Australian.

The experiment was repeated and expanded with STC productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Uncle Vanya touring to NYC and Washington; and Gross und Klein, which toured to France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Like all good international trade, the experiment was a two-way street, including collaborations with America’s Artists Repertory Theatre, and international artist imports, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, William Hurt, and Isabelle Huppert, to work alongside local creatives.

With Blanchett’s star power attached, local and international sponsorship was attracted to match government funding.

Consequently hundreds of Australian theatre practitioners were employed in a viable industry which did more than break even, it made money.

And Blanchett was smart and generous enough to include Sydney Theatre Company in her Oscar acceptance speech this year, in front of one of the world’s largest live audiences.

It was a form of product placement which every fledging industry needs, and there was absolutely no inferiority about Blanchett’s description of STC as, “one of the great theatre companies in the world.”

AUSTRALIAN MAID Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett in STC's The Maids.
AUSTRALIAN MAID Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett in STC’s The Maids.

When STC’s production of The Maids, starring Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, opened at New York’s Lincoln Center last August, the experiment moved from its start at the fringe of one of the largest theatre industries in the world, right to its heart.

Created in Sydney, and sold to the world, Australian theatre has never experienced such exposure, and it’s already had an effect on other Australian theatre companies, with the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) matching STC’s international touring record with something of a coup.

Instead of touring in an American or European classic, the way STC has done, MTC showcased an original Australian play – David Williamson’s Rupert – a bio about News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch.

CREATING A STIR Cate Blanchett in the controversial 2011 Carbon Tax ad campaign.
CREATING A STIR Cate Blanchett in the controversial 2011 Carbon Tax ad campaign.

Which brings us neatly back to Carbon Cate’s record of direct action on climate change.

In 2010, Blanchett and Andrew Upton, her co-artistic director and husband, oversaw the conversion of STC’s power supply to solar.

By the time they flicked the symbolic switch, which would light the company stages with energy from the sun, Blanchett’s appearance in the “Say ‘Yes’ to the Carbon Tax” commercial was still months away.

Her appearance in the commercial has undoubtedly been blown out of proportion over time. Michael Caton (who could easily have been dubbed ‘Carbon Caton’ but missed out on any ire from the Coalition) took the main role.

Blanchett was the last of the actors to appear, and her only line was simply: “And finally, doing something about climate change.”

In the light of STC’s conversion to solar, at the time one of this country’s largest solar capture operations, and the steps she and Upton had taken to ‘green’ their own home, Blanchett had earned the right to claim to have done something about climate change.

PLUCK COVER copyThe irony is, her actions were as close to the Coalition’s ‘direct action’ as it gets, which only proves that many in Australia are not ready for an artist to show the way, even one at the top of her game internationally, with her feet, and her creative heart, firmly planted in home soil.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

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.

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.